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This “just-add-water” refugee shelter can be built by hand in a day

The concept is designed to make us think of refugee camps as permanent new cities, not temporary gatherings of flimsy tents.

In a refugee camp that needs new housing quickly, this simple new house can be built in a day by two people without any specific construction skills or heavy machinery. The house, unlike most refugee shelters, is also designed to last for decades and help launch a new city, not be just a temporary shelter in a transient settlement.

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“Basically, [others] design these places with the idea in mind that it’s going to be a temporary camp—that there’s going to be just a moment where you go in, and then you go out and it’s destroyed,” says Antonin Yuji Maeno, an architect and designer and cofounder of Cutwork, the Amsterdam- and Paris-based studio that designed the new house, called the Cortex Shelter. “The reality is very different.” Kakuma, a camp in Kenya with more than 185,000 residents, has been in place since 1992; so has the Dadaab complex of three camps and the Zaatari camp in Jordan. Many others have also been in place for decades.

[Image: Cutwork]

Since refugee camps rarely end up being actually temporary, the architects argue that it doesn’t make sense to use tents, even as the first wave of refugees arrives somewhere. Tents can easily burn or be slashed with a knife if someone wants to break in—and they also don’t last long. “If you’re staying 10 or 20 years and you replace a tent every nine months, this is absolutely not a viable solution,” Maeno says.

[Image: Cutwork]

The house, which the designers are developing as a prototype now, uses the company’s own design for a metallic frame that ships flat but is bendable. The designers partnered with Cortex Composites, a company that makes a custom rollable “concrete fabric,” that can also ship flat and then be draped over the frame. The fabric, a plastic mesh filled with cement, was inspired by the type of cast used on a broken arm; when water is added, it hardens in place. (It also has a much lower carbon footprint than typical concrete.) Inside, another textile filled with insulation is added to the walls inside the main portion of the home where people live and sleep. At one end of the home, a ventilated area has space for cooking and a separate room for a dry toilet and off-grid shower and sink. Solar panels on the roof provide enough power for lighting, phone charging, and a stove. The team is aiming for a cost under $4,000; over the long term, the homes are cheaper than replacing tents.

[Photo: Cutwork]
When the prototype is complete, the team hopes to work with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to offer the houses in the agency’s marketplace. Some similar homes are already in use in some refugee camps, like the flat-pack Better Shelter home developed with support from Ikea, which is now in use in countries from Tanzania to Brazil. Better Shelter structures are also used as healthcare clinics in Bangladesh, where hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled from Myanmar, and as classrooms in Iraq. Cutwork envisions that a different version of its own shelter could also be used for affordable housing.

At refugee camps, it hopes that the homes will help inspire a different approach to growth that embraces  the idea of building a new city where people want to live. (Politically, this may be difficult, since host countries that don’t embrace refugees often want settlements to appear as temporary as possible.) “One of the key challenges of a city is actually to attract people,” says Maeno. “What a camp does is it repels people: People come in, and the only thing you want to do is to go away. But if you make an urbanism project that shows a future potential growth, there is the idea within that, that you want to stay there.”

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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."

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