Design icons: the Better Shelter and refugee housing

From a series written for ABC Radio National’s Blueprint for Living. This one was first broadcast on 8th April 2023. You can listen to the audio here.


Flatpack furniture made its first appearance in the 1950s when an employee of a Swedish furniture company needed to transport a table in the back of his car. But its contribution to modern life has never been as important as the part it plays in refugee housing. It’s a vital element of the RHU – or Relief Housing Unit – which was designed with the help of that furniture company’s charitable arm, the Ikea Foundation.  The Better Shelter was first used in 2015 and has since provided temporary housing for those displaced by anything from earthquakes to wars. Like the 5000 units provided this year to help those who lost their homes in the Turkish-Syrian earthquakes. To date, the Foundation has sent 80,000 shelters to 78 countries, helping more than 400,000 people.

The quickest and cheapest way of providing emergency shelter is to use tents. But they offer little in the way of defence from heavy snow or extreme heat; they lack stability in wind and give almost no personal protection. In times of crisis, human dignity is often disregarded and people are forced to live in extreme ways, adding further trauma for those already traumatised by their displacement.

So how do you design something that offers safety as well as some level of comfort? The Better Shelter story starts in 2009 when a young industrial designer called Johan Karlsson started playing with the notion of temporary shelters. A year later, his ideas were picked up by the IKEA Foundation and the United Nations’ Refugee agency, the UNCHR. Prototypes were tested with Somali refugees in Ethiopia in 2013 and, with a larger team, the design was further refined until it was ready to be rolled out properly in 2015. 10,000 units were then sent to camps set up for those affected by conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

The design is remarkably simple, the single structure flatpacked into a cardboard box, meaning a great number can be easily transported by truck or even airdropped to inaccessible areas. Key to its success is its minimalism, with a frame made of tubular steel rods, a little like a tent’s, set up on a sturdy waterproof floor and then covered with thermoplastic panels that are heavily insulated, giving the structure great rigidity, able to withstand wind, rain and snow, and helping mitigate the effects of baking sun. Photovoltaic panels on the roof create power for lighting and the charging of mobile phones, an important element for family contact and when news is hard to come by. The door can be padlocked and the walls can withstand the slashing of a knife’s blade, giving safety to those inside, especially women, and the interior is large enough to be curtained off to allow some privacy. Crucially, all of this can be assembled by two people using only a hammer. Not a single Allen key is needed. It’s designed to last for years, the frame recovered in different materials, if necessary, and can be linked to create classrooms and clinics. This is design with flexibility in mind. Emergency shelters are been developed by others, too, like the Cortex shelter by Cutwork, which uses a similar structure to that of the Better Shelter but is covered with a roll of concrete that becomes rigid when doused with water. And it’s likely that 3D printing will play a part in the design of future shelters, helping speed up the process of setting up camps in remote areas. For now, the Better Shelter is a benchmark in emergency shelter design. With the on-going movement of people affected by war and climate change events, never has the convenience of flatpack been proved to be so vital. And never, perhaps, has it offered so much humanity.

Categories: Design, Icons, radioTags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Great story! Thanks for informing us, Colin. Glad to hear no Allan keys are involved! 🤨

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