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8 Shelter-Design Innovations Provide Eco-Friendly Paths to Permanence

shelter design hex house

  • Temporary shelters can provide relief during natural disasters, war, and other events that can uproot populations.
  • The United Nations has reported that one in 95 people are currently forcibly displaced due to conflicts and violence.
  • This roundup highlights eight examples of shelter architecture projects that could address this growing crisis.

The number of displaced humans has more than doubled in the past decade, according to the United Nations. The commission reported 82.4 million displaced in 2020 but cautions that the number of refugees could exceed 100 million soon if multiple global crises are not addressed.

Natural disasters, war, lack of widespread COVID-19 vaccine availability, and economic instability are displacing humans on an unprecedented scale, making it harder for communities to rebound quickly and for uprooted people to transition from temporary shelters into long-term housing.

One glimmer of hope, however, lies in portable and temporary shelters. They provide emergency housing that is prefabricated and quickly deployable in a disaster, and increasingly, they offer longer-term relief and a smoother transition to recovery. Here are eight examples of shelter architecture design innovations aimed at transforming temporary housing for masses of displaced people and helping them regain a sense of normalcy in their lives.

1. The Eco Living Module Is a Super-Sustainable Dwelling

This 215-square-foot module—a collaboration among Yale University, Gray Organschi Architecture, and the UN—is meant to “spark a conversation about how truly self-sufficient a family of four housing can be,” according to Anna Dyson, founding director of Yale’s Center for Ecosystems in Architecture (CEA). The structure was designed with sustainability in mind: Features include solar panels; batteries that store enough energy to power a radiant heating/cooling system; and a condenser that extracts rainwater from ambient humidity to provide clean water for drinking, showering, bathing, and irrigating plants. The structure features an external plant wall for growing produce that can feed a family of four for more than 260 days a year.

shelter design eco living module
The Eco Living Module has space for cultivating produce. Courtesy of David Sundberg/Esto.

2. The Foldable Skyscraper Feeds Off a City’s Waste to Produce Energy

Damaged infrastructure can make it very difficult to respond to emergencies. That’s what three Polish designers wanted to address with the conceptual, a mobile, solar-powered skyscraper that can be quickly folded and transported to natural disaster zones. This compact structure can be instantly deployed into a skyscraper with several floors, allowing uses such as a vertical farm, temporary housing, hospital and reception zone, and storage. The building is made with nanomaterial that can be used to produce clean energy in the case of an emergency and is designed to collect rainwater and filter it for use.

3. EDV-1: A Self-Sustaining, High-Tech Shelter

This shipping-container-size shelter by Daiwa Lease can be deployed anywhere a truck or helicopter can travel. In less than five minutes, it can expand to two stories, with a shower, bio toilet, small kitchen, storage for supplies, equipment, bunk beds, and an office desk. Solar cells feed lithium-ion batteries while a condenser provides as many as 20 liters of water a day. The EDV-1’s pixilated skin lights up to provide signage, sharing critical information during emergencies.

4. Hex Houses Provide Dignity and Community

Architects for Society is a 14-member nonprofit comprising architects from eight countries. When the team discovered that the average stay in a refugee camp was 17 years, with many people living in makeshift dwellings such as airplane hangars, it wanted to create a more dignified option. It designed the Hex House, a small, hexagon-shape house that is rapidly deployable and comes with two bedrooms, bathroom, porch, kitchen, and common areas for shelter with privacy. Multiple Hex Houses can be connected to accommodate large families and offer a sense of community.

shelter design hex house
A close-up view of Architects for Society’s Hex House. Courtesy of Architects for Society.

5. AbleNook Offers Secure, Stylish Shelter

The solar-powered AbleNook can be assembled in two hours without any tools and without the need for skilled labor. It is robust enough to endure a low-level hurricane. While there are no bathroom or kitchen facilities in the AbleNook, it offers a protected terrace that provides additional space so inhabitants don’t feel confined. Other features include natural ventilation and lighting and water-storage space.

6. IKEA: Not Just a Furniture Store?

IKEA’s solar-powered Better Shelter ships in a flat-pack and features a modular design that makes it as easy to assemble as the company’s furniture. Five people can sleep comfortably inside the structure—which, at 188 square feet, is twice the size of a standard refugee tent. The home has solar-panel roofing, allowing inhabitants to generate their own electricity, and its roof deflects solar energy to keep its interior cool during the day and warm at night. At $1,250, the Better Shelter costs twice as much as a typical emergency tent, but it provides security, insulation, and durability for at least three years.

7. The HuSh2 Disaster Shelter Can Withstand Hurricanes

Extremis Technology’s HuSh2 family shelter is specifically engineered to withstand Category 5 hurricane winds. It was designed for the transition period between the initial tent housing and permanent resettlement. The shelter can transform from a rectangular building with a pitched roof into a “storm-safe” prism shape by folding its walls down, in just seven minutes, without tools.

shelter design new story
New Story’s concrete 3D-printed house can be built in less than 24 hours. Courtesy of Logan Architecture.

8. New Story Is Scaling a Cheap and Sturdy Concrete 3D-Printed House

The UN estimates that 1 in 95 people is now forcibly displaced due to “persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations and events seriously disturbing public order.” To fight global homelessness, design-build nonprofit New Story partnered with ICON to build the first permitted, 3D-printed houses made of concrete. The production version of its concrete printer will be able to build a single-story, 600- to 800-square-foot home in 24 hours, for less than $4,000. The structure includes a living room, kitchen, bedroom, and wraparound porch.

This article has been updated. It originally published in December 2018.

About the Author

Rosa Trieu is a technical writer and journalist in San Francisco, where she works on making information more accessible.

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