What do you do when a flash mob of a million homeless refugees shows up to your third world country from the neighboring third world country? Make them sleep on the hot (or cold) ground and wait for the United Nations to show up with crappy tents, of course.
Until next month, that is, when you’ll be able to put them up in solar-powered huts on the cheap. In July, Ikea Foundation and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) will roll out one of the major innovations for war-torn homeless since the canvas tent: cheap, flat-packed, build-it-yourself homes with electricity-generating roofs.
More than 43 million people—globally—live as refugees or "internally displaced" (refugees within their own countries), having fled home due to "a well-founded fear of persecution" of race, religion, nationality, or socio-political membership. Right now, 3.5 million of them live in UN-provided tents, says Per Heggenes, CEO of the Ikea Foundation. "They offer little comfort, dignity, or security," he continues. "Further, the existing tents are cold in the winter and hot in the summer. They have no electricity or lighting, limiting refugee families’ ability to lead a normal life."
Eighty percent of refugees are women and children, and 80% of these end up in undeveloped countries. Many remain in limbo for more than a decade at a time, waiting for tension to cool down in their home countries and struggling to find work in new territory. (Imagine Tom Hanks in that one movie where he’s stuck in the airport, only with dirt floor, no air conditioning, and multiplied by 3,500,000 people.)
Up to this point, the best elemental protection relief workers could often provide refugees have been cheap, canvas UN tents that start to disintegrate after about six months.
The new Ikea-inspired shelters are built to last 10 times that long. They’re twice as large as an old-school refugee tent, at 17.5 square meters (fitting five people comfortably) and take about four hours to assemble, which is about how long it took my lawyer friend, Frank, and me to bolt together my giant Ikea bookshelf the other day.
Unlike my bookshelf and other standard, wood-based Ikea fare, the shelters are made from lightweight, Porta-Potty-style plastic mounted on a supersteel skeleton. To make them cost-effective to build, assemble, and ship, the Refugee Housing Unit, which is manufacturing the actual shelter components per the Ikea Foundation’s design, developed a new type of polymer siding called Rhulite that lets light in during the day but keeps light from casting embarrassing shadows outside during the night—a privacy concern with the current UN tents that leads to many refugees extinguishing what little candle- or kerosene-lighting they can afford.
"It is important that the shelter is lightweight enough so that it can be easily and cost efficiently transported, but strong enough to withstand the harsh conditions of refugee camps," says Johan Karlsson, Project Manager at Refugee Housing Unit. "The design is to balance the mechanical properties such as UV, structural strength, insulation, cost and a very specific requirement for this application: privacy."
During the day, an external screen on the shelter’s roof provides 70% solar reflection and cooling, and at night it keeps heat in. "The net is knitted from technical textile made interlaced with aluminum and polyolefin strips," Karlsson sys. "On top of the shade net is solar panel laminated on a thin plastic film, taking away the bulky panels used traditionally."
The Ikea Foundation (which has invested approximately 3.4 million euros in the project so far) and UNHCR will beta test the shelters in Ethiopia next month, then iterate to a final design for mass production. They currently cost $10,000 to make, but they’re hoping to get that price down to less than $1,000 when they’re in mass production. The tents cost half that, but they hope to have the cost even out, given the long life of the shelters.
The RHU is keeping an eye on the development of Organic Photo Voltaic cells (OPV) that could one day be printed directly onto the shade net and scale up enough solar power to run water purification and cooking devices. But until then, each flat-packed kit will come with a single solar panel that powers a built-in light and a USB outlet.
At first blush, the USB seems odd, but it actually speaks to at least one aspect in which high tech has brought the world together. We 7 billion Earthlings may look, speak, and worship in a thousand different ways, but we all plug our mobile phones into the same four-pin port. And soon, hopefully, we’ll all be able to take care of our unfortunate neighbors a little better, too.