State of Shelter
Patrick Wharram's Lightweight Emergency Shelter. Rendering courtesy Design 21: Social Design Network.
As aid and relief supplies reach Haiti to help earthquake victims, attention is focusing on immediate needs such as food, water, medical care and temporary shelter. Shelter plays a critical role in emergency relief as a way not only to protect victims from weather conditions but also to provide a semblance of family and community life amid horrific conditions and collapsed infrastructure.
For the most part, aid organizations still rely on old standbys like tents and tarps for emergency shelters. They are cheap and easy to transport and set up, and although basic, they work well for immediate shelter even in precarious conditions such as post-earthquake Haiti. “Nothing beats the price point of a blue tarp,” notes Deborah Gans, of Gans Studio
, a New York architecture firm that has worked in the area of disaster relief housing.
There are new and innovative alternatives to tarps and tents, which have been developed over the past decade following disasters ranging from the Asian tsunami to Katrina and earthquakes in Pakistan, China and Iran. These designs use new lightweight materials, or sandbags or indigenous materials such as repackaged clay or earth. They also incorporate clever folding and packaging methods.
But the new designs have drawbacks: they are usually more expensive than tarps and tents; they have not been widely field-tested; and they are not kept in inventory in large numbers, which means overwhelmed aid agencies can’t rely on a rapid deployment. Moreover, while the newer designs can be used for prompt emergency housing they are often better suited for the second stage of relief known as transitional housing, between emergency shelters and permanent settlement.
Steps for setting up Concrete Canvas Shelter. Photos courtesy Concrete Canvas.
Compared to soft solutions like tarps and tents, the recently launched Concrete Canvas Shelters — rapidly deployable hardened shelters made from a cement-impregnated fabric — are robust and solid structures that can be erected in a few hours (all you need is water and a generator for the air pump). But they cost around $24,500 for a 270-square-foot unit, and because it is a new technology, developed by the British company Concrete Canvas
, supplies are limited. Originally developed for military use and as field hospitals, concrete shelters are “probably not appropriate for Haiti as short term housing but as a replacement for infrastructure, such as for hospitals and field operations,” explains Peter Brewin, the company’s operations manager.Deborah Gans's Roll Out House. Rendering courtesy Gans Studio.
Concrete canvas shelters are not as expensive as the notorious FEMA trailer, used for years after Katrina to house the displaced, which cost around $67,000 each. A less expensive way to go might be Gans’s Roll Out House
, made of two infrastructural columns, one of folded paper and one of bamboo, which support a roof that collects water and is equipped with photovoltaic cells. The core house could be delivered for “several hundred dollars,” Gans says, but the design, originally developed for Kosovo refugees, has never been put into production.
Prefab structures, like Global Village Shelters, are another option. These are solid, waterproof structures are made of extruded polypropylene and shipped as flat packs. Small 65-square-foot units cost around $1,000 when ordered in bulk, but they take up to eight weeks to manufacture. Still, Dan Ferrara, founder of Global Village Shelters
, says one benefit of these shelters over tents is that their sturdiness “provides a sense of home.”Global Village Shelters. Photo courtesy Global Village Shelters.
Patrick Wharram’s Lightweight Emergency Shelter, which won first prize in a competition on the design for social change site Design21
, is easy to transport and erect and has a sustainable element — it’s made of recyclable polyester mesh and aluminum, so it can be reused or recycled when the emergency is over. What’s more, the foldable framework and polyester material are sewn together to form a single unit. That means no loose components that could get lost; setup is easy. “The whole shelter is one piece that concertinas out from its packed state and locks into rigid form,” Wharram, a freelance designer, explains. “In a natural disaster like in Haiti, the last thing rescue workers or locals need to be concerned with is erecting a shelter that is complicated to assemble.”
Unfortunately, the Lightweight Emergency Shelter is not yet in production (a prototype is expected this year). That’s too late to help the people of Haiti, who will have to make do right now with tarps and tents as their temporary homes as they start to rebuild their lives.