A Place to Call Home (For Now): United Nations Rolls Out New High-tech Refugee Shelters Inspired by IKEA's Flat-Pack Design

As the world undergoes the worst refugee crisis in almost two decades, the IKEA Foundation, the United Nations and Refugee Housing Unit have teamed up to make the lives of refugees safer and more comfortable
(3BL Media/Justmeans) -- According to the latest annual Global Trends Report, released last month by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are an estimated 7.6 million people newly displaced due to conflict or persecution, including over a million new refugees (the highest annual number since 1999) and another 6.5 million newly displaced within their own countries (the second highest figure of the past ten years).
There are more than 45.2 million refugees, an increase of almost 3 million from 2011, with the crisis in Syria being a major contributor to the increased displacement. Even more distressing is the fact that children below the age of 18 make up 46 percent of all refugees, with a record 21,300 asylum applications submitted in 2012 coming from children separated from their parents.
It is against this harrowing backdrop that a new collaboration has emerged to help improve refugee housing, which has remained unchanged for six decades. For the past two years, the IKEA Foundation has orchestrated a unique partnership with the UNCHR and Refugee Housing Unit (RHU), a subsidiary of the Swedish non-profit foundation SVID (Stiftelsen Svensk Industridesign), to develop a new prototype refugee shelter inspired by IKEA's famous "flat-pack" design, which can be easily shipped and assembled.
I had a chance to ask RHU project manager Johan Karlsson, UNHCR Innovation head Olivier Delarue and IKEA Foundation CEO Per Heggenes some questions about this innovative cross-sector initiative.
What was the genesis of this collaboration?
Johan Karlsson: It started when I was working as a designer at the Formens Hus Foundation, which at the time was a Swedish non-profit foundation committed to the R&D of sustainable design and dematerialization. One of the main programs at the foundation was the development of lightweight, material-efficient structures. Through a partnership with the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, my team and I developed a series of prototypes of lightweight cardboard shelters. Then I had the opportunity to demonstrate the project to the former IKEA design manager Lennart Ekmark. He liked it, believed it was within the "spirit of IKEA" and provided support to get a funding application through to the IKEA Foundation. At the time, the IKEA Foundation and UNHCR were already discussing a similar project and so the partnership was born.
How did you approach the research and development for the design?
Johan: From the start we knew two things: We needed to balance the needs millions of people living in different cultures, climates and regions with rational production where you ideally only want to have only one solution. To achieve this we realized we needed a modular solution which could be adapted to the local context—such as adding a shade net in hot areas or insulation in cold areas or providing additional modules to build bigger houses for big families. As the creative process started we shifted from an analytical mindset to working hands-on with prototyping and testing—even sleeping in very incomplete prototypes to discover requirements or faults we could not foresee. Back in the office we evaluated the ideas and revised the requirements. There have been quite a few of these cycles from the start to where we are today.
Did you get input from refugees during the research phase?
Johan: We worked very closely with UNHCR and listened to their expertise from dealing with refugee situations in order to come up with a design that would be suitable for field testing with actual refugees.
How long does it take to construct one unit?
Johan: A current UNHCR tent takes around one hour to set up. However, you need pegs, guide ropes and poles. Simple equipment such as a mallet is also required. It may sound easy, but if you don't have one, it's very hard to set up one of these tents. We realized early on that the setup time is not critical as long as you can get your shelter up in one day with no additional equipment needed. Currently it takes a small team approximately four hours to build the RHU shelter. Refugees spend an average of 12 years in camps, so we realized that it was wiser to spend the money on material and product quality rather than pre-assembly and tailoring.
Is the unit recyclable?
Johan: The panels are 100% recyclable and can be recycled to produce new panels or other goods of similar properties. We conducted initial trials using ordinary household waste like PET bottles in the production of RHU Panels. These trials found that technically this is possible—and makes them low priced with good material properties. The manufacturing technique is similar to the current panel and could be produced locally, so this is something we are looking into.
What about using local materials?
Johan: Using local materials and shipping in prefabricated shelters both have their advantages and disadvantages. Locally-sourced building materials are often preferred; they stimulate local economy and are often culturally appropriate since they are sourced from the region. However, drawbacks include the fact that local markets seldom have the capacity to supply the sudden demand of a major refugee crisis, resulting in deforestation and booming prices which destroy the local market. Also, locally-sourced solutions typically take longer to implement and require skilled personnel or training, whereas a prefabricated solution can be set up within a few hours. Local materials are likely to be used in protracted refugee situations when there is not an acute crisis and the basic infrastructure is set up to be able to provide local building materials.
Can the units be used as temporary disaster housing?
Olivier Delarue: Absolutely. The new shelter has the potential to provide a more dignifying temporary housing solution to refugees as well as people displaced by disasters. Essentially they could serve as temporary homes until displaced people are able to return to their places of origin. One of the fundamental aspects of the project is its modularity. And because of its long life expectancy—and the fact it is specially built to be dismantled easy—displaced people could bring their RHU back with them when they return home. This will help them to resume a normal life in the event that their original home was destroyed or damaged in the conflict or disaster which forced them to flee in the first place.
What was the rationale behind IKEA Foundation's decision to fund this project?
Per Heggenes: We funded this project because the current humanitarian budgets are tight and do not allow organizations to invest in setting up new and innovative projects like these, although there is a clear demand for better shelter among refugee communities. Tents used in emergency relief operations today are inadequate and do not meet the economic, social and environmental needs of refugees and humanitarian organizations. Despite the rapid development of materials, technology and production in the private sector-little of this knowledge has been transferred into the humanitarian sector when it comes to shelter. So we're excited about this project because it bridges the humanitarian needs with the opportunities of modern technology, materials and manufacturing processes. We also have a strong belief that all children deserve a safe place to call home. As of today there are more than 3.5 million refugees currently living in refugee tents—more than half of them are children. An estimated 100 million children will benefit from programs like this one currently funded by the IKEA Foundation by 2015.
How much has the IKEA Foundation invested in the project?
Per: Approximately 3.4 million euros in grants to UNHCR and Refugee Housing Unit.
What is the approximate cost of one unit?
Per: It's too early to say what the precise cost will be, but we expect it to be around $1,000. Our goal is to create a shelter that is more cost effective than housing refugees in tents. 
What is the potential economic impact of the shelters on the local economies where they will be built?
Per: They could have huge economic and humanitarian implications. What is often overlooked is the living standards of the tens of thousands of refugees who are forced to live in camps on average for 12 years. The prototype shelters are designed to last several years—far longer than the tents currently used.
In which countries will these be deployed?
Olivier: In Ethiopia, 25 RHU prototypes will be based in the Dollo Ado refugee camp, which is currently the home of over 190,000 Somali refugees. In addition, 12 RHU prototypes will be tested soon in Northern Iraq. With the Syria crisis—which has so far forced 1.6 million to flee their homes mainly in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey—the demand for shelter assistance is huge and urgent, so UNHCR needs to work very hard to meet this demand.
How will you measure the success of these new shelters?
Olivier: Since we are still in the prototype phase, it is critical to set the units in a harsh environment to have feedback on their technical resistance and also have refugees' views on the cultural suitability of the units. This process will enable RHU and UNHCR to continue to refine the RHU solution and ensure that it meets the established requirements.
Are there any future improvements to the design that have been discussed?
Johan: Looking ahead, a major break-through could be to upscale the solar power to run water purification and cooking devices. One technology we are watching closely is Organic Photo Voltaic cells (OPV)—solar cells which could be printed directly onto the shade net and/or the roof of the new shelter. Rainwater collection could be another improvement. The current shelters are prototypes and we will use the feedback from the field testing to make further improvements.
Find out more about this project at the UNHCR RHU Shelter Facebook page.
Watch the IKEA Foundation's video, "Designing a better home for refugee children," on YouTube.