Disaster by design: Innovative emergency relief shelters

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Gizmag looks at some innovative emergency shelters

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When people find themselves in dire straits due to natural disaster or displacement through conflict, a well designed and rapidly delivered emergency relief shelter can make the difference between life and death. Gizmag highlights some of the more innovative emergency shelters we've come across.

Emergency shelters pose a particularly tricky challenge for designers and architects, as a successful model needs to take into consideration such concerns as delivery, speed of construction, durability, and cost.

The following disaster shelters range from concept renders to real units that people are living in right now. They also vary between a very simple and basic hut, to more sophisticated designs that boast solar power and rainwater collection. Each one has the same aim though; to save lives with good design.

Better Shelter

Scandinavian furniture giant Ikea turned its considerable design and delivery expertise toward making a refugee shelter that can be easily delivered to those who need it most. Better Shelter ships in flatpack form and assembly takes four people a like number of hours to complete.

It's built from a metal frame, while the walls and roof are made of plastic panels, which sounds a little flimsy but is sure to be tougher than a tent. Ikea rates Better Shelter's lifespan at around three years and its interior comprises a total floorspace of 17.5 sq m (188 sq ft), made up of one large space.

The shelter sports a small roof-based solar panel. This powers an interior lamp that automatically switches on come nightfall. The solar power also feeds a USB port for charging small devices like smartphones. Ikea recently committed to delivering 10,000 Better Shelters to UNHCR (the UN's refugee agency).

Tentative concept

Turkish design practice Designnobis conceived a concept shelter dubbed Tentative that could be delivered flat, and simply pop-up once in place, requiring very little assembly in the field.

Tentative features a fiberglass roof and floor, and weather-resistant tough fabric walls. This design would mean that Tentative's height is reduced from 2.5 m (8 ft) to just 30 cm (1 ft) when ready for transport, thus allowing up to 24 units to fit into a single semi-trailer truck.

When in use, Tentative would measure 4 x 2 x 2.5 m (13 x 6.5 x 8 ft), and its interior could fit two adults and two children. The shelter would be raised off the ground with small stilts, natural light would come in via a small skylight and window. Designnobis told Gizmag that it's hoping to commercialize Tentative.

Rapid Deployment Module

Massachusetts-based firm Visible Good has developed an emergency shelter that it says can be assembled in approximately 25 minutes by a couple of people without any tools.

Cleverly, Rapid Deployment Module (RDM) makes use of the box it ships in as a base for its structure. Its roof, meanwhile, is made from fabric, and the windows and doors are lockable. Each RDM is rated as suitable for 10 years.

Inside, RDM's walls can serve as whiteboards and the 30 sq-ft (12 sq-m) of available floorspace can be fitted with bunk beds and desks, or even medical equipment to serve as a clinic. RDM was put through its paces in the real world during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the U.S. Army was so impressed that it invested R&D money into the firm in a bid to create a more hardy version suitable for extreme climates.

Temporary Shelter in Nepal

The aptly-named Temporary Shelter in Nepal is a lot more basic than the above shelters, but paradoxically this can, in the right circumstances, be seen as a positive. Designed by Charles Lai and Takehiko Suzuki of Architecture for the Mass, the shelter can be constructed by local unskilled workers in three days.

The current prototype shelter cost just US$500 to build and was constructed using locally-sourced bamboo and locally-salvaged materials, including timber and metal sheets taken from damaged or demolished houses.

Along with the actual shelters, Lai and Suzuki also created a manual to aid locals in building their own shelter. The pair report that following their instructions, which can be downloaded or distributed on paper, unskilled workers should be able to erect a shelter within three days using local bamboo and whatever suitable cladding can be salvaged.

Hush2

The Hush2, by Extremis Technology, is a disaster shelter designed to withstand hurricane-level winds up to 200 mph (322 km/h), or Category 5. It can be assembled within a couple of hours and is built from marine plywood. To stop it flying away, Hush2 is held in place with a simple ground fixing system that also enables it to be moved with relative ease.

The shelter measures 4.3 x 4.4 x 2.4 m (14.1 x 14.4 x 7.9 ft) and comprises two sections, which can be used as living and sleeping quarters. Roughly rectangular shaped, it can be quickly reconfigured into a more aerodynamic "storm-safe position" should heavy winds strike. Four sections of the shelter are folded diagonally inwards and the shelter's sides are also folded inwards to create a roughly triangular shape.

Shelter

Carter Williamson's Shelter measures 37.5 sq m (404 sq ft) and can house eight to 10 people. The prefabricated structure can also be flat-packed and at least some scrap and salvaged materials can be used in its construction. A couple of people can assemble it within a day.

Shelter sports adjustable scaffolding props, which serve as stilts to raise it off the ground, thus making it suitable for uneven ground and safe from minor flooding. It operates off-grid and sports a 1.5 kW roof-mounted photovoltaic solar array, in addition to a solar hot water system and a rainwater collection tank. Finally, Shelter also boasts an optional outdoor decking area that includes composting toilet, a shower, and gas-cooking facilities.

Just a Minute

In the wake of the severe earthquake that hit Nepal earlier this year, Italian firm Barberio Colella ARC has designed a disaster shelter dubbed Just a Minute for displaced Nepalese people. The concept features an interesting design comprising a concertina-like expandable structure.

Just a Minute would measure just 2.5 x 4 m (8.2 x 13 ft) while in transportation, but once in the area it's needed, could be expanded by volunteers to 4 x 11.7 m (13 x 38 ft). Barberio Colella ARC says that once expanded in this way, it would be suitable for up to 10 people.

The concept calls for an solid oriented strand board center section that comprises a bathroom and kitchen, while the lounge and sleeping areas are off to each side. Insulation would come in the form of burlap stuffed with donated woolen clothing, and the firm also imagines roof-based solar panels and a rainwater catchment system.

Re:Build

Less a shelter and more a shelter building system, Re:Build is the work of Pilosio Building Peace, architect Pouya Khazaeland, and emergency shelter expert and former Architecture for Humanity boss Cameron Sinclair.

It comprises scaffolding tubes joined together in order to build a simple frame, then fencing is added to create walls. The empty space between is filled by pouring in whatever's available on-site, such as sand or gravel, and scaffolding platforms are then used as a roof, over which earth is piled. The floor is made from plywood panels, and the buildings also have a basic rainwater catchment system.

The system has so far been used to build two schools in the Jordan-based Za'atari and Queen Rania Park refugee camps, both costing €30,000 (roughly US$32,900). More is planned too, and the team aims to roll out Re:Build to other areas, with Somalia next in line.

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