Beyond the Tent: Why Refugee Camps Need Architects (Now More than Ever)

Beyond the Tent: Why Refugee Camps Need Architects (Now More than Ever)

In 2013 alone some 1 million people have poured out of Syria to escape a civil conflict that has been raging for over two years. The total number of Syrian refugees is well over 2 million, an unprecedented number and a disturbing reality that has put the host countries under immense infrastructural strain.

Host countries at least have a protocol they can follow, however. UN Handbooks are consulted and used to inform an appropriate approach to camp planning issues. Land is negotiated for and a grid layout is set. The method, while general, is meticulous – adequate for an issue with an expiration date.

Or at least it would be if the issue were, in fact, temporary.

The interior of a standard issue UNHCR tent. Many families live in tents like these for years. Image Courtesy of Crossroads Foundation Photos, Flickr User Crossroad Foundation Photos

Camps don’t pack up their things along with the news crews. The average lifespan of a refugee camp ranges from seven to seventeen years (reports vary), and many last far longer. They are a breeding ground for virulent disease and violent crime - and as camps grow larger and older, reports of violence against women increase disproportionately. This trend hasn't gone unnoticed - Architecture for Humanity and its partners are raising funds for a project that aims to create a "series of welcoming, safe spaces that can act as nodal points within the camps." The project is an excellent first step and should be considered a precedent for further architectural intervention in refugee settlements.

Indeed, if there’s anyone qualified to consider the long-term when rebuilding in post-disaster situations, it’s architects. And if there’s anyone with a moral obligation to provide safe, affordable, and sustainable shelter, it’s most definitely architects.

Unfortunately, when looking at the sustainability of refugee camps, there is a large set of (failed) examples to refer to. The fourth anniversary of the cataclysmic Haiti earthquake looms near, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that, by now at least, the infamous Haitian tent cities have disappeared from the landscape. But while the number of people in these settlements has recently dropped significantly, forcible evictions by the government seem more to blame than improved conditions elsewhere. The message is clear: large scale disasters require long term solutions.

A tent city in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Image © Wikimedia Commons

Given architects’ urban planning expertise (as well as knowledge of recent research into how temporary cities successfully grow), they are perhaps uniquely qualified to make a long-lasting difference. “Temporary” settlement design is not a typology so off-the-wall that it requires a new way of thinking – it simply calls for the aggregation of established knowledge.

The consideration of mobility in design proposals, for example, could provide a solution to the “impermanent permanence” of refugee camps. Since hosts can’t accommodate refugees indefinitely, a camp that could be moved into and out of an area with relative ease could be attractive to all parties involved.

A mobile hospital plan, developed by Hord Coplan Macht + Spevco, uses the trucks that bring supplies as the eventual structure itself. In the case of refugee camps, this is a concept that could be adapted to include residential spaces. Shipping containers, too, could easily be repurposed to accommodate families.

In 2009, Architecture for Humanity Atlanta lent their design expertise to develop a mobile, floating health clinic called Hope Floats in Lagos, Nigeria. The project, now installed and in use, has proved an immense success – and one that could certainly be replicated and expanded on. Might we one day see floating refugee communities? Shelter on water could lessen some of the on-ground burden host countries have to deal with, and could even turn into a more permanent solution for the refugees themselves.

The modules make assembly (and disassembly) of the Hope Floats clinics simple. Local materials and labour are used to build the structure, which then launches from a docking point. Image Courtesy of Open Architecture Network

Higher-tech proposals could also generate solutions while still satisfying architects’ appetite for innovation. For example, Dutch firm DUS Architects developed a highly mobile 3d printer (“KamerMaker”) that is capable of printing entire rooms out of recycled materials – a viable, albeit expensive, option for post-disaster design. But it's not worth ruling out just yet - 3D printing is becoming increasingly popular, and affordable ways to print may be right around the corner.

And of course, especially in aid situations (where there isn’t much money to be thrown around), affordability is a major concern.

IKEA recently collaborated with UNHCR to design a new type of refugee shelter (flat packed, naturally). Although the design costs twice as much upfront, it lasts far longer than the tents that are currently in use (which must be replaced every six months), and is ultimately a cheaper solution. It also offers better temperature control, solar energy for light in the evening, and a little more privacy for the inhabitants. While it’s perhaps not a “home”, it’s a pretty good alternative.

Courtesy of IKEA Foundation

Unfortunately, of course, envisioning and implementing architectural solutions in refugee camps would be fraught with complications. Camps are kept high density to reduce the amount of space needed to keep secure as well as to simplify resource distribution. They also suffer from very restrictive legal framework, largely due to their tense political nature. And of course, solutions must be implemented quickly and efficiently – something that is far easier said than done.

But architects have never been ones to shy away from complex design challenges – and there’s immense opportunity for architectural innovation in “do-good” design.

It’s time to move beyond the tent. Are architects ready for the challenge?

About this author
Cite: Katherine Allen. "Beyond the Tent: Why Refugee Camps Need Architects (Now More than Ever)" 14 Oct 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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