Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Housing in Humanitarian Crises

Providing interim / transitional shelter post-disaster is a challenge, one where the demands for materials often outweigh the local supply. In unique circumstances, like the case of the tsunami that hit American Samoa in 2009, there wasn't enough building material on the island to address the shelter needs of the impacted communities. And while ordering more wasn't a problem, the multi-week lag from order to delivery due to American Samoa's unique geography, caused significant delays in getting people back into their homes. The point being that providing shelter following an event remains one of the greatest challenges to those in response and recovery, regardless of how straight-forward it may seem.

While the idiosyncrasies that affected the speed of recovery in American Samoa are unique to its geography, the challenges shelter represents post-disaster are not. Finding a shelter solution that's cheap, readily available, culturally appropriate, easy to put together, durable, can quickly be distributed, and can withstand the elements, are only a small set of obstacles that need to be overcome when figuring out how to get people out of camps and back to their communities.

The pressure to quickly implement a solution coupled with an organizational need to be "doing" while creating "impact," are part of the reason some shelter solutions fall short of their intended goals. A great example of this was witnessed when an International NGO implemented a shelter program in Haiti in 2010/2011. Shelters were distributed throughout the community but rarely used because they had no ventilation, the tarp walls provided no security, and they didn't come with doors. What seemed like a slam dunk on paper failed to gain any traction with the people it was intended to help.

Due to the host of requirements structures need to fulfill, hitting the mark can be exceedingly difficult when it comes to shelter following an event. That doesn't mean however that there isn't a shortage of innovative ideas that try to meet as many of the requirements as possible.

One such idea belongs to the I-BEAM architecture and design, with their pallet structure concept:
While a great many challenges stand in the way of this concept making it to the front lines, it's one of
the ideas that I find interesting. For case studies on shelter designs following conflict and natural disaster check out:, a great resource for examining a wealth of case history regarding shelter in dynamic environments.

While the magic shelter bullet remains an elusive ideal that many organizations covet, there isn't a shortfall of innovative ideas to spur the next round of implementation...if concept design intrigues you, I would suggest looking into Architecture for humanity and their book Design like you Give a Damn, where you will find no shortage of unique perspectives on post-disaster housing solutions.

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