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A Stronger Disaster Relief Shelter Made From Bamboo

Instead of asking disaster survivors to put together makeshift tents from tarps, agencies might consider the ReciproBoo, a kit for building a strong shelter from simple materials.

In the wake of big natural disasters, aid agencies have to shelter thousands of people quickly. The obvious solution is to put up lots of tents, but those aren’t always available. Often, all agencies have to offer is a piece of tarpaulin, and it’s up to survivors to lash together a structure as best they can.

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The result is a lot of uncertain-looking shelters that could fall down in bad weather. That’s what happened in Haiti, when heavy rain followed the earthquake–makeshift shelters were torn to pieces, and washed away.


Shaun Halbert’s answer is the “ReciproBoo”: a kit for building a strong reciprocal frame from a small number of bamboo or steel poles. He says it’s not only much cheaper than a tent, but also adaptable and simple to construct. A family can have a working shelter in as little as 20 minutes.

Halbert has worked as an aid worker in several countries, including Haiti. “It was Haiti that I really saw there was something needed for the tarpaulins that were being handed out by the tens of thousands,” he says. “There really isn’t a framing solution available at the moment.”

The core structure is a four-pole frame, where each length supports the other. You put one end on the ground, then elevate the front 30 degrees, fixing it in place with a simple three-pole frame. “It supports tarpaulin in the middle where it’s needed, and there’s also a natural place for a flue, if you want to put a small stove in the middle of the tent,” Halbert says.


It might not look like much, but Halbert says the structure’s simplicity is its strength. You can quickly double the shelter’s size: a second four-pole frame generates 200 square feet from 11 poles, with plenty of headroom. The shelter is very cheap and strong given its limitations. The double-version costs only about $25, he estimates.

Halbert recently workshopped the concept in Nepal (see here), and has been talking to aid agencies about it. Next, he would like to find a partner for a full pilot. “I’ve reached the point where the groundwork has been done. I’m looking for people that share the same vision,” he says.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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