This “Emergency Floor” Turns Old Shipping Pallets Into Better Refugee Shelters

In refugee camps, it pays to make use of the materials that you’ve got.

Refugee camps might lack a lot, but they usually have an abundance of one thing: shipping pallets that get trashed. Now a new social enterprise is using those pallets to make floors for emergency shelters.


Many refugees still live in shelters that are basically tents, with dirt floors that can spread disease or lead to hypothermia when people living in cold climates have to sleep on the ground. With an unprecedented number of refugees living in camps today, aid organizations often can’t afford to provide anything more.

Discarded pallets help offset the cost of the new flooring system. The design, called Emergency Floor, uses modular plastic tiles that fit exactly over standard pallets, creating a raised platform that keeps emergency shelters cleaner and warmer. Shipping and warehousing is easy, because the bulkiest part of the design is already on-site.

“We’ve been working on this issue for over three years now and have gone through countless design iterations,” says Scott Austin Key, co-founder of Good Works Studio, who created the new flooring system with fellow architect Sam Brisendine. “The more we learned about why the need for flooring isn’t being addressed, the more we learned that these cash-strapped organizations would like to provide it, there were just no tenable solutions from a financial perspective. We knew to solve this problem meant starting with a low price point.”

It’s a much-needed alternative. Tarps, which easily snag and tear, don’t last long, and refugees often repurpose them to fix leaky roofs or expand their living space. Slabs of concrete, which cost more and don’t work well in cold climates, aren’t allowed at some camps. When Ikea tried to bring its flatpack refugee shelters to Lebanon, they were told they looked “too much like real houses.”

“Concrete pads are a luxury in some camps, but most governments won’t allow them,” says Key. “They resemble permanence and many host countries prefer to keep all provisions ‘temporary.'”

Right now, most refugees live without any kind of floor at all. “This is an unacceptable condition in any climate, but many of the world’s refugees live in climates that experience freezing ground temperatures in the winter time,” he says. “The combination of cold and freezing temperatures, and rain or snow, often result in tragic outcomes.”


The designers worked with Ikea to test Emergency Floor in Sweden, and now they’re preparing to test it at a refugee camp in Iraq, pending government approval. They’ll survey families before and after getting the new floor about their health, whether their sleep improved, comfort, dignity, and how easy the design was to assemble. Sensors inside the shelters will measure how temperature, humidity, and moisture levels change with the floor in place.

They also plan to expand beyond emergency shelters, to help the billion people around the world who live with dirt floors in their permanent homes. In the spring of 2016, a pilot program in Ghana will launch to test a new version of the design.

“We’re most excited to see this thing we’ve worked on for so long become real,” Key says. “We know it will make a difference in the lives of the families who receive it.”


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.