After an earthquake or flood, the emergency relief tents that are often sent by aid organizations to people who lost their homes don’t last long—after six months or a year, the tents will probably become trash or, at best, be used for scraps. But nonprofits are now testing a new type of emergency shelter: a simple structure that could be built within hours, but that could later be adapted with local materials to become a more permanent house.
“We can ship in something that provides emergency relief, but then you can upgrade it locally,” says Johan Karlsson, managing director of Better Shelter, the organization making the shelter, called Structure. The Ikea Foundation-backed nonprofit first launched flat-packed shelters in 2015 as Syrian refugees were fleeing to Europe. The original shelters, with sturdy panels to make up the walls and roof, a door, and the option of solar panels, are more expensive. The new shelter, with a simple frame that can be covered with a tarp and eventually recovered with other materials, is nearly four times less costly, at $365. Because funding for humanitarian shelters is limited, the organization is running a campaign to ask donors to pledge a dollar a day for a year to sponsor a home.
The shelter can be used immediately but later strengthened with local materials such as bamboo, sorghum, or twigs mixed with mud or clay. When local construction is possible, Karlsson says, it makes sense to support the purchase of those materials and create jobs rather than shipping in a fully finished home from donors. “You can stimulate the local economy,” he says. “And the investment that you make in a humanitarian response to save lives also can link into early recovery.”
Better Shelter began working with nonprofits in a handful of countries in 2020 to test the design. In a pilot in the southern Indian state of Kerala, for example, a nonprofit partner built a small number of the homes after massive flooding. In Tajikistan, a nonprofit planned to test the design for use as disaster shelters after a landslide but ended up using them for COVID-19 medical stations. When the pandemic ends, the shelters can be disassembled, moved, and reused. When upgraded with local materials, the structure is expected to last as long as 10 years.
In some areas, the original Better Shelter may be a better fit. “It works very well for a protracted crisis where you don’t have access to local materials,” says Karlsson. “Countries like Syria, Iraq, or Yemen.” In other areas, if local materials are readily available and people can quickly rebuild themselves, that’s ideal. But Structure aims to be a helpful backup solution in an emergency where shelters are needed immediately. The shelters can also be stored locally before a disaster happens, with 180 units packed into a shipping container.
The nonprofit and its partners are now scaling up. Fifty units have been deployed in pilots so far, with 500 planned by the second quarter, and a goal of 10,000 by the end of the year. It will continue to test and potentially tweak the design. (Better Shelter itself evolved early on, as the organization realized that the shelters were being used in more cramped settings than they’d been designed for, posing a fire hazard; the designers had to reengineer materials and also work with partners to make sure that they were being deployed correctly.)
The team hopes to help share local construction techniques between regions. “If we find techniques and materials that work in Rwanda, we want to see if we could scale those techniques in another country,” Karlsson says. “We want to try to learn the craft and the local know-how and the local expertise in one place to really capture that and then to try to translate it to another.”
It’s one example of the type of solution that the world will need as climate change displaces more people from their homes. Since 2000, the number of climate-related disasters has nearly doubled, according to a recent UN report, and by 2030, the number of people who need help after floods, hurricanes, and other disasters could rise by another 50%.