On the long road to a new home—sometimes walking more than 4,000 miles from Afghanistan to the Hungarian border—refugees can barely carry personal belongings, let alone a tent.
A new design is meant to make shelter a little easier to carry: During the day, it's an ultra-lightweight jacket that protects someone from the elements. At night, it expands into a basic tent for a parent and a child, or two spooning adults. (It's like a more portable, summer version of this coat-turned-sleeping bag for homeless people).
"Watching the constant news about the refugee crisis—while politicians are failing to come up with a solution—I was thinking that there's got to be other ways of helping that aren't just about tins of beans and blankets," says Harriet Harriss, a senior tutor at the Royal College of Art in London, who helped guide a team of students to design the new transformable shelter.
The first version of the design, made for summertime, can help keep someone shaded, cool, and dry as they walk. "It has a reflective panel in it, much like a space blanket," she says. "It has that partly to protect from damp, but also to make sure that it keeps you cool in the summer when you're walking in extreme heat, like a lot of refugees will be doing."
The jacket is made from Tyvek, the same paper-like fabric used in envelopes, because it's cheap, waterproof, and durable enough that it should theoretically last for an average journey, and then fully recyclable once someone reaches their destination. It's also white—the international symbol of peace—so it could help make it immediately obvious that someone is a refugee.
"We had a massive debate about more durable fabrics at the beginning—the obvious one is khaki, but coming out of Syria, wearing what looks like military fatigues would be an enormous problem," says Harriss.
The white Tyvek can also act as a canvas. The students plan to give the jackets out with a marker. Someone can write their family name, or kids can draw a picture. Harriss, who lived in a foster home briefly as a teenager, says she remembered the need to write her name on everything, even sheets, while she was away from her family home.
"I really strongly identify with the fact that when you've lost everything—you've lost your home, your culture, your neighbors, your family, and you don't have any sense of belonging anywhere—it's funny how much the ability to customize some part of your immediate environment becomes symbolic and so powerful," she says.
The students are also working on a smaller version for children that includes inflatables that can double as life jackets (in the adult version, unfortunately, inflatable parts take up too much space in the tent). This summer, they plan to take their first prototypes to refugees to get feedback and plan for a winter version that can protect against the cold.
The team is made up almost entirely of interior design students. "We want to debunk the myth that design students are self-indulgent and frivolous," says Harriss. "There's a joke that all interior design students care about are cushions . . . or luxury interiors for the elite, and never doing anything that has any kind of societal impact."
This, they hope, is proof of the value that designers can bring in a humanitarian crisis. "What is happening now is not enough," she says. "So designers really need to start getting in on the act."
London-based fashion company Wall helped sponsor the prototype, and now the students are crowdfunding production, though they need quite a bit of help. They hope to deliver the jackets in June or July.