Friday, 5 July 2013

IKEA develops flat-pack refugee shelters

It had to happen sooner or later, and it is just a coincidence that I blogged on the topic recently.

There are undoubtedly many reasons why the Ikea Foundation has been working with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).  But the press releases suggest that the primary driver has been to address the main problem: most of the current shelters used in refugee camps, being one or other traditional tent design, have a life span of approximately six months before they to be replaced. Yet long-term refugee situations mean that, on average, refugees stay in camps for 12 years, with some, such as Palestinians caught in the political expediencies of the Middle East, still in camps after 50 years.

Designed to last three years, the prototype shelter from Ikea is a shed-like structure made of lightweight polymer panels, laminated with thermal insulation, which clip onto a steel frame.

The proposal has come in for a mix of comment, including the predictable scathingly negative from those experienced in the field.  So, for instance, AKZ commenting in Dezeen:
"Emergency shelters designed to last months should cost about $150. Transitional shelters should cost in the range of $1,500 (as this shelter supposedly does), however they should be transitional, which means repairable by the people living in them.

Not many people desperate enough to use these shelters would have access to tools to fix aluminium tools (sic). Shelters should also be built by beneficiaries or at least have their input in construction in order that the shelters are valued and actually used. Not having to shift large amounts of materials across international borders also helps a major relief operation. Local materials which can be built and maintained by local people helps a shelter project succeed." 
It is a good, succinct summary of the constraints.  But a slightly more measured look at the IKEA project would actually suggest that its response to those same constraints has considerable merit.

For instance, the boxy shape is explicitly providing vertical walls to encourage the addition of other external materials over time – including, I assume, rammed earth or adobe, locally sourced.  Unlike many other structurally sophisticated portable shelters proposed buying vulnerable exhibitions of hopeful architecture students, this one has a primary structural frame just asking to be re-roofed with more permanent sheet materials.

I am more concerned that the proposed design may in fact have too many components that are readily repurposed as part of the inevitable economy of refugee camps and their host economies.  That, after all, was the ostensible purpose of Shigeru Ban's otherwise worthless cardboard tubes – they were neither locally sourced saplings for tent poles, but denuding the countryside, nor the metal poles supplied as substitutes, but far too versatile to be confined to that function.

I wish I had the wisdom that this global problem is crying out for.  One thing is clear: the IKEA proposal is not pitching into the murky waters of emergency shelter as perverse, self-promotional art objects.  For a start, it is just too ugly for that.  So are they just as naughtily promoting their flat pack retailing philosophy?  I honestly don't think so.It is time they got involved, and I for one am pleased that they are doing so with an object on which they have obviously not sought to stamp any particular minimalist design aesthetic.


Anonymous said...

I definitely agree that this partnership between Ikea Foundation and UN Refugee Agency and their proposal of these Flat Pack Refugee Shelters is a step in the right direction. Rather than focusing on form and design "innovation" as many architectural competitions sponsored by museums, art festivals require, the Ikea Flat Pack Refugee Shelters are flexible, adaptable, modular, aimed towards function and how best to provide comfort for the millions of refugees without a home.
Benefits of the shelters include the convenience of transportation and assembly, the lightweight plastic panels which have a lifespan of minimum three years, also providing insulation; and the metallic fabric shading cover which reflects sun during the day and retains heat at night including a solar panel that allows inhabitants to generate their own electricity. In addition the ability to be replaced with more permanent sheet materials, allowable with the square form, vertical walls and primary structural frame. All these considerations show an huge improvement to the current housing options available to refugees, however it is not without its shortcomings.
Currently, each of the Flat Pack Shelters reportedly cost around $7,500, though designers hope they can reduce that to $1,000 in mass production, which is still double the price of current UN refugee tents. Additionally, the shelter kits weigh 100kgs each compared to the 60kgs of the average tent. However, in my opinion it is well worth the additional cost and weight, considering that they last an estimated six times longer than the current tents and provide a incomparable higher level of comfort without wasting time and energy on aesthesis when function is the most important in this situation.

Anonymous said...

I agree that large multi-national furniture corporations should be more ethically involved in addressing homelessness and emergency housing in the global environment. The Ikea Foundation is exemplary in its efforts since its partnership with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and other companies should follow in Ikea’s footsteps. The need for temporary and emergency housing for Indigenous Australians is a crisis that must be addressed; it has been found that 17.2% of such individuals are homeless (according to the 2011 Australian Census).

While ‘couch-surfing’ and sharing of accommodation between large amounts of relatives of Indigenous Australians is a commonplace behaviour within lower-socio economic/rural communities; it is the right of every human being to have access to safe, structurally sound and clean living environment.

The cost of Government subsidised housing/hostels may be overbearing for individuals who are doing it tough both financially and emotionally, and with the cost if a temporary shelter costing only $150 and transitional shelters only costing $1500; there is no excuse for the Australian Government to not partner with companies such as IKEA in order to fix the homelessness issue – one that obviously affects a significant large portion of the Indigenous Australian community.

Although the ‘flat-pack refugee shelters’ funded by multi-national corporations will not solve the underlying issues that are undeniably the cause of this high rate of homelessness in Indigenous Australians (domestic/sexual/drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment etc.); it will inevitably provide such individuals with a safe and hygienic environment.