Shelter Design Helps Refugees Weave Lives Back Together



shelter - 1More than 40 million people around the world have been displaced by conflict and other emergencies. Many end up sleeping under tarps and tents in terrible living conditions, far from the homes they once knew. These temporary homes are often made of plastic that shreds quickly and starts to leak. Canvas tents last longer, but they trap heat when the sun is up and hold in dampness during the night.

Tents of all kinds collapse under snow, and offer little insulation from the elements and outside noises. They are also highly flammable, and are at risk of devastating fire when cooking is done nearby or electrical wires are strung through camps. Now, with the number of the world’s refugees and displaced reaching ever higher numbers, the question of how best to shelter them has become more pressing than ever.


Shelter Inspired by Nature


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A Jordanian-Canadian architect named Abeer Seikaly is attempting to find an answer to that question through a tent she designed herself. She began to work on the tent design in 2013, after Jordan experienced a massive influx of Syrian refugees, and she found their shelters to be non-functional and uninspired. The tent is made of a lightweight fabric that allows it fold down flat or pop out into a dome shape. The fabric has a double-layer surface and was inspired by materials found in nature and in cultural activities such as weaving.

For warmer climates, the surface has panels that can open to provide ventilation. These panels can also close to trap heat in the winter. When it rains, water is filtered down the sides into storage pockets. The tent uses a system called thermosiphoning that can draw the water back up from the pockets if the inhabitant wishes to shower. Solar energy is also transferred from the shelter fabric into a battery for a power source. The tents are five meters in diameter and 2.4 meters high, but the design is scalable to other dimensions.

Seikaly, who calls her project ‘Weaving a Home,’ won the Lexus Design Award in 2013. Her design goes well beyond basic needs. She says, “Disasters break down community. Shelters must transform the remains into something new. Basic needs are not enough. If the environment isn’t beautiful, it affects the way we behave in a negative way.” Her tents are meant to provide a way for refugees to settle in a new land and to provide them with better living conditions so that they can begin to put their lives back together.


More Comfortable and Sustainable


shelter - 2Seikaly is currently working with engineers in Britain to create a plan to produce the tents. Since she is still finalizing the design, she doesn’t yet have a plan for when the tents will be available, but hopes to put them into widespread use in the near future. In the meantime, she is also planning how the tents will be introduced to refugee communities and considering what the unit cost will be.

Refugee communities are meant to be temporary, but many people must endure their terrible conditions for years and even decades. This design tries to make those camps more comfortable and sustainable. Seikaly recognizes that wars and natural disasters will always displace people, but she believes that people can still have the opportunity to live happily. “It’s about giving people back their dignity,” she says. “A home is not a place where we happen to live. It’s a place where we are able to express ourselves, and a refuge from the outside world.”


Valerie Busch

Valerie Busch

Valerie is a development professional based in Toronto, Ontario.

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