How Europe’s Influx Of Refugees Is Inspiring Creative, Affordable Housing For Everyone

Designers are finding unusual ways to house refugees by integrating them into communities–while pushing the envelope on affordable design.


When hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants started arriving in Europe in 2015, many cities started quickly building simple shelters, sometimes repurposing old shipping containers as temporary places to sleep instead of tents. But these makeshift sites were also often on the edges of cities, isolating the arriving community from other residents and any sense of normalcy.


Designers are now working on longer-term solutions that can help arrivals better adjust to their new lives–and potentially improve housing for entire societies.

IMBY-In My Backyard, by DAT Pangea Quatorze

“This is a huge opportunity to rethink the resources that we have, not only to serve asylum seekers well, but to serve a lot of disenfranchised communities within our own society,” says architect Marco Steinberg, who led From Border to Home, a competition to create better housing designs for the refugee crisis. He thinks that by looking at an extreme case, architects can also take the opportunity to improve everyday housing.

In Finland, where the number of asylum seekers increased tenfold in 2015, one conceptual design would create flexible space within standard apartments. Most of the time, the added space would just be an extra room. But when a surge of new people arrives, the idea is that the government could ask the occupants to use pre-installed partitions to temporarily divide their apartment in two. In exchange for living in one of these “donor apartments,” the tenant would get a 25% discount in rent.

“The idea is that when we have these peaks of migration, rather than at the last minute trying to frantically respond to the peak–with expensive, short-term housing solutions–that we have that capacity built in,” says Steinberg.

This type of design could help European cities respond to future waves of people fleeing political unrest or climate change. But it could also potentially help Helsinki better deal with its existing housing shortage by allowing families to adjust their housing as their situation changes, such as when a couple gets married, has kids, or retires.


For refugees, the design could help provide immediate social connections to Finns, since their apartment-mate is a permanent resident, not another refugee. In a typical shelter or complex built specifically for asylum seekers, it’s difficult for new arrivals to quickly learn the local language and make local friends. Though the design is still conceptual, the architects presented it to the Finnish government earlier this year.

Several other designs also focus on integration–and provide new affordable housing for other groups. In the town of Koblenz, Germany, a new building that floats over a university parking lot (on stilts, so people can still park below) will house both refugees and students. In the city of Ostfildern, a new energy-efficient apartment complex houses refugees with formerly homeless people.

In the city of Ostfildern, one project aims to re-imagine affordable housing for the homeless and refugees. The project, buildings with three structural shells with sloped roofs, creates a private atmosphere for residents. A community garden encourages communal life.u3ba Camilo Hernandez + Harald Baumann. Photo by Markus Guhl

In Berlin, a group of artists plans to turn a huge old government complex–the former East German House of Statistics–into a new home for refugees, artists, and social projects. Florian Schmidt, one of the organizers, says that it addresses two problems at once: the fact that artists are being gentrified out of the city and the influx of refugees and asylum seekers into the city. “We saw that this is another way to address all these questions of integration or participation,” he says.

Another design, soon to be built as a prototype in Paris, would give asylum seekers tiny houses in the backyards of homeowners. If the concept expands, refugees would work on the construction themselves–a form of training that would help them earn a diploma and prepare them for a building job. Because the tiny houses would be part of established neighborhoods, refugees could begin to feel like part of local culture more quickly.

“At its best, architecture has the capacity not only to answer the ‘bed’ question, but to do so in a way that has a strategy of community building,” says Steinberg.


A Dream of Flexible Housing

Still other projects focus on using space wisely, or making housing flexible so it can be converted to other uses once the influx of refugees and migrants slows.

For example, in Finland, where many public schools and day cares are in need of renovation or rebuilding, another team of architects proposes designing temporary shelters that can later transform into schools. Centrally located in neighborhoods near families, the buildings could also give refugees better opportunities to meet Finns and other permanent residents. And in Germany, architecture students at Leibniz University designed a concept called “Fill the Gap” to build housing on underutilized spaces throughout the city of Hannover–over parking lots, on roofs, on unused barges in canals and rivers, and in an abandoned train station.

Filling the Gap by Marc Glugla, from Refugees Welcome.[Image: courtesy Jovis]

Many European cities that have housing shortages also have an abundance of office space. One proposed design, called Mezzahome, uses a modular structure to quickly fill abandoned buildings with new apartments. It’s something that could easily be adapted to build more affordable housing for anyone, not only asylum seekers.

“[Politicians] tend to argue that cities are full,” architect and Leibniz professor Jörg Friedrich told a German website. “But they’re not. There is plenty of vacant space.” He notes that 40% of spaces in multistory car parks are usually empty.

In practice, many of the new ideas would take time and money to implement–and often require changing building codes or other regulations, such as zoning and construction rules. And they seem like a far reach compared to where refugees are often living when they arrive in Europe today, like the overcrowded tent encampment in Calais, France, or the deserted Olympic stadiums that have been turned into makeshift shelters in Athens.


In cities that are responding most quickly to new demand, many designs are more prosaic, though planners are still attempting to focus on ideas like integration. In Munich, where around 126,000 asylum seekers arrived last year (many moved on, but thousands also stayed), the city is quickly building 1,000 new units by early 2017. Over the next few years, it will build thousands more, all in addition to public housing that was already planned for a growing city.

UpOnTop by Simon Beckmann, Tassilo Gerth and Sinje Westerhaus, from Refugees Welcome [Image: courtesy Jovis]

The city is siting the new buildings throughout the city, though that’s difficult. “Finding proper and available public and private building areas to set up apartments so quickly is the most difficult challenge urban planning is facing at the moment,” says Martin Klamt, with Munich’s department of urban planning, told us.

For some citizens, the flood of newly arrived people is still seen as a threat: Cities are already struggling with a lack of affordable housing. “There are a lot of others already looking for affordable housing as well, often immigrants that have come 10 or 20 years ago,” says Peter Cachola Schmal, director of the German Architecture Museum, which helped curate examples of housing for immigrants for the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale and an online database. “Building affordable housing for refugees will thus create tensions with all those already waiting for affordable housing because now they are competing on a shrinking market.”

But if cities take a more creative approach to urban planning–adopting some of the solutions that architects propose–it may soon become clear that the influx of refugees can lead to better housing for everyone.

In Helsinki, which also has a housing shortage, some architects have suggested Airbnb-like sharing solutions for refugees; similar ideas could also help other populations. Students, for example, have trouble finding housing, while elderly people often have extra space and struggle with loneliness.


“We know the elderly have a need for social connection, and we know students have the ability to provide some of that,” says Steinberg. “Can we combine these two things together? That’s where I come back to this idea that solving this problem actually creates solutions for everyone else.”

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[Illustration: Made by Radio]

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, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."