At the end of 2022, the number of people displaced from their homes by conflict and climate-related disaster exceeded 108 million. This year the number has grown significantly. For those affected, shelter – however temporary – is an essential starting point for recovery, offering privacy, dignity, safety and community. 

In crisis situations, shelters have to be erected rapidly and at low cost. “They are designed for an emergency,” says Johan Karlsson of Better Shelter, “but people often have to live in them for years or even decades.” The transition from temporary shelter to permanent homes is yet another challenge. The international charities, architects and engineers rising to this challenge is a complex network.

Philanthropic organisations

A Norwegian Refugee Council emergency team in Herat, Afghanistan
A Norwegian Refugee Council emergency team in Herat, Afghanistan

Norwegian Refugee Council
The Norwegian Refugee Council works with people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes. From the earliest provisions of blankets and tents to long-term solutions, its focus is on ensuring dignity. “It is incredibly important to understand that people want to have a hand in their own recovery,” says Alison Ely, who leads NRC’s Shelter and Settlements programme, providing direct cash grants as well as legal aid to protect people from forced evictions.

Unicef tents at Selam Camii temporary shelter in Hatay, Turkey
Unicef tents at Selam Camii temporary shelter in Hatay, Turkey © Haşim Kiliç/Unicef

Global children’s charity Unicef needs shelter to operate many of its programmes, from vaccinations to education. The team has developed high-performance tents that can withstand 80kmph winds and be adapted for hot and cold climates.

Founded following the second world war, the UN Refugee Agency leads organisations across the globe in providing shelter for those fleeing conflict and persecution. It has the potential to reach one million people within 72 hours.

Housing charities

A ShelterBox kit in the Philippines
A ShelterBox kit in the Philippines

ShelterBox acts in the immediate aftermath of disaster, providing tents and temporary fixings. The Cornwall-based charity stores aid in strategic locations all over the world, and each package is tailored to its destination: these might include mosquito nets, solar lamps or concrete bases for tents in muddy or flooded locations. 

Shelter is at the centre of the humanitarian aid provided by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies. The Pakistan Red Crescent Society is still appealing for donations after monsoon floods claimed a million homes last year. In one of its biggest relief operations to date, the PRCS has provided shelter for hundreds of thousands, built permanent homes and fought against the malaria outbreak caused by the flood.

All Hands and Hearts
All Hands and Hearts was born from two non-profits, both founded in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which joined forces to rebuild schools in Nepal. Relief is ongoing, with 26 schools rebuilt so far, and projects are now underway in Ukraine, Mexico and elsewhere.

Former President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter on their first Habitat for Humanity work project in New York City in 1984
Former President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter on their first Habitat for Humanity work project in New York City in 1984 © Habitat for Humanity New York City and Westchester County

Habitat for Humanity
Habitat for Humanity was founded in 1976, when the first Habitat house was built in Texas. Now the international charity has helped more than 46 million people access shelter in more than 70 countries. In Haiti, hundreds of homes were built or repaired after the 2010 earthquake, and many were retrofitted to resist future shocks.

Bonyan NGO
Bonyan works across Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Yemen supplying transitional shelters, replacing tents and reducing fire risks in often crowded areas. More than two million people have benefited from its emergency response programme, including Turkish and Syrian victims of this February’s earthquake.

Emergency Architecture & Human Rights
This organisation “stemmed from a general sentiment that architects were not deploying their skills to fight social injustices”, says acting CEO Michael Ulfstjerne. The Danish NGO seeks to involve vulnerable communities in the architectural process, whether that’s designing a classroom for refugees in Jordan or working closer to home in Copenhagen.

A Better Shelter Relief Housing Unit in Syria
A Better Shelter Relief Housing Unit in Syria © Better Shelter/Ali Haj Suleiman

Better Shelter
Having started as a collaboration between UNHCR and the IKEA foundation, Better Shelter is a nonprofit that delivers flatpack shelters to disaster zones and displaced people – more than 90,000 to date worldwide. While still a temporary solution, Better Shelter is mindful of how long people remain in emergency shelters (the first shelters deployed in Syria are still standing after five years), and its aim is to provide a structure with standing height, solid walls and light.

As shelter provision depends on support from local infrastructure, RedR trains engineers in the skills most vital for humanitarian aid. In Uganda – which is home to 1.5 million refugees – hundreds of engineers trained by RedR have gone on to help Oxfam and UNHCR provide emergency shelter.

Architectural initiatives

Shigeru Ban Architects’ partition system in use in Lviv, Ukraine
Shigeru Ban Architects’ partition system in use in Lviv, Ukraine © Voluntary Architects’ Network

Voluntary Architects’ Network
Pritzker-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban’s firm and its non-profit initiative create innovative temporary shelters using cardboard tubes, as well as paper partition systems to provide privacy in collective shelters. His “Paper Log Houses” were recently deployed in Marrakesh, while the partition system has been used across Europe in refugee centres housing Ukrainians.

Cypress Community Development Corp
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency commissioned CCDC to build 450 “Katrina Cottages” – small, prefabricated homes designed by Marianne Cusato. With their coloured walls and front porches, the cottages were scaled-down versions of a typical Louisiana home, and provided a dignified, permanent alternative to standard trailers, as well as being affordable and easily erected. Cottages are now being built in Panama City following Hurricane Michael.

Near Lyon, in a region with one million rammed-earth buildings, researchers at the Grenoble School of Architecture study earthen building techniques and local building cultures. Their group, CRAterre, supports organisations such as the IFRC in the transition from temporary shelter to reconstruction by designing solutions with locals. Often, the most appropriate and sustainable approach to rebuilding will use local techniques, says their head of habitat Philippe Garnier, so “the best place to look is at what people are already doing.”

Mugombwa refugee camp in Rwanda, with reflooring by Creative Assemblages
Mugombwa refugee camp in Rwanda, with reflooring by Creative Assemblages

Creative Assemblages
An interdisciplinary practice, Creative Assemblages’s work includes studying refugee settlements and collaborating with their inhabitants to improve shelters and public spaces. At the Mugombwa refugee camp in Rwanda (above), it trained 20 masons and refloored 200 camp shelters.

Architectes de l’Urgence
Founded in 2001 after the flooding of the river Somme, Architectes de l’Urgence is a French NGO that has mobilised thousands of architects in 41 countries. It has recently built three new schools in Haiti and is developing programmes in Morocco and Turkey.

Better builders

When their employees lost their homes in Kyiv, robotics entrepreneurs Alex Stepura and Oleg Pogonyshev designed a fully modular home that could be constructed rapidly. They have now expanded production and sell fully furnished homes for £14,500, hoping to fight the housing crisis in Ukraine and beyond.

A Scottish start-up, Quickblock has created blocks from recycled plastic that ship in flatpack but can be clicked together – without any tools – to create whole buildings within hours. They offer a single dwelling package (£2,000) or a 24-home “village in a box” (from £55,000).

In Alaska, Intershelter creates fire-resistant, water-tight domes that withstand 200mph winds and 30ft of snow. They go up as fast as a tent but last for 40 years. The domes (from $9,000) have housed victims of wildfires in Hawaii and hurricanes in the Caribbean, and served as field hospitals for Doctors Without Borders. 

Build Change
Build Change both responds to and prepares for disaster. In cities like Medellín, Colombia, an increasing number of people live in informal dwellings that are especially vulnerable to earthquakes. Reinforcing homes before a disaster is up to 68 per cent more carbon-efficient and 77 per cent more cost-efficient than rebuilding from the ground up.

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