At the sprawling, city-like Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, the average Syrian refugee is expected to stay as long as 17 years. And yet despite that time frame, many people are living in canvas tents that can start to fall apart in months.
The U.N. is starting to invest in longer-lived prefab housing, like clever new flatpack homes from Ikea. And now a team of architects has proposed a more sustainable way of building homes, schools, and clinics in refugee camps: Using local materials like sand and gravel, the design can be built by refugees with no prior knowledge of construction, using no electricity or water. If a family or school later moves, they can disassemble the building and rebuild it somewhere else.
Cameron Sinclair, founder of the design firm Small Works and the former head of Architecture for Humanity, says the project started with a simple question: “Can we create a re-deployable structure that could be assembled by unskilled labor with only locally found or easily sourced materials.” Sinclair partnered with Pouya Khazaeli, a local building expert, and Pilosio Building Peace, the nonprofit arm of a scaffold manufacturer, to come up with a simple design called RE:BUILD.
In the design, metal grids sandwich layers of sand or gravel to act as natural and cheap insulation in a climate with extreme heat in the summer and heavy snowstorms in the winter. On the roof, solar panels power the building, surrounded by strips of soil used in a rooftop farm.
The technique can be used to build anything from a small home to a school, using whatever layout refugees need at the moment. It’s meant to be used directly by refugees themselves, so they don’t have to wait for someone else to help.
“By working with them as co-designers and co-builders we were able to adapt the urban design to a local context and to draw in a cultural history,” Sinclair says. “We victimize refugees by treating them as second-class citizens instead of understanding that they are some of the most resilient and hard working people on the planet. By engaging the refugees as paid laborers ensures that they once again feel in charge of their own destiny and leave with the skills to reassemble the school back in their home country.”
The team started by building two schools in Jordan. “We started with school, as this is the greatest need right now,” he says. “When a child has nothing to live for, they have everything to die for, and lack of compassion breeds distrust and hatred. This is more than the right to education, this is the right to believe in a positive future.”
The designers think something similar could be used for temporary, cheap, but strong buildings around the world. “By 2044 over 2/3 billion people will be transient, nomadic or displaced,” Sinclair says. “So this is a solution for now, in anticipation of mass need in the future.”