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Why IKEA’s Award-Winning Refugee Shelters Need A Redesign

Fire safety concerns halted the rollout of Better Shelter and the IKEA Foundation’s portable, flat-pack refugee shelters to camps. The Swedish social enterprise is working on a redesign to launch later this year. We speak to their director about the lessons learned.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
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A Better Shelter refugee housing unit at Kara Tepe camp on Lesbos, March 2016. Better Shelter

It was a simple idea that caught the imagination of the design world and the general public.

A Swedish social enterprise, with funding from the foundation of furniture giant IKEA, developed a flat-pack refugee shelter to be shipped to camps and assembled on site in four hours. As refugees spend longer periods living in camps, the shelters are designed to offer a more comfortable and dignified living space and have a much longer lifespan – around three years – than the average tent.

Since production began in 2015, Better Shelter’s refugee housing unit has won the London Design Museum’s annual award and been featured in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) bought 15,000 shelters, and deployed around 5,000 in Iraq, Djibouti, Niger, Serbia, Greece and elsewhere. “The IKEA-backed company making flat-pack refugee shelters can’t keep up with demand,” read one Quartz headline.

In recent weeks, the architecture and design magazine Dezeen reported that the remaining 10,000 shelters purchased by UNHCR have not been deployed after Swiss and German authorities raised fire safety concerns in late 2015.

Better Shelter is working on a redesign of the housing unit, which it plans to launch this summer. Refugees Deeply spoke to Johan Karlsson, the managing director of Better Shelter, about what happened and the lessons learned along the way.

Refugees Deeply: The Better Shelter refugee housing unit has had a lot of attention and won several design awards. What problem did the initial design solve?

Johan Karlsson: I think the main reason is because it’s a very tangible solution. It is something that many people can identify with – flat-pack, low-cost IKEA furniture. People think: “I would rather myself be in one of these refugee housing units than in a tent or under plastic sheeting.” That idea is what really drove the publicity. But the reality is of course far more complex than that.

There is also the traction of the partnership with UNHCR and the IKEA Foundation, drawing on the competencies of both organizations. On the other hand that has also raised some critiques. The quick fix of the design, while very popular with the wider public, causes some aid workers in the field to question whether it fits their policies … it comes with a preconception that it is more like a CSR (corporate social responsibility) venture than something that has actually been tailored to the needs of refugees living in these spaces.

It has also raised questions like: “How does this fit with the idea of using local materials and rebuilding local economies.” This is an idea that’s very strong in the humanitarian sector, for the right reasons. Others have said: “This is a brilliant solution, but it costs $1,150, and I have a shelter program of $300 per family, so I cannot afford it. It’s great that you’re selling Ferraris, but we have to rely on bicycles here.”

These are some questions that have been raised by some field organizations. It has been a learning journey together with them. We have a new type of product, and it may require some different ways of working or how you budget your investment in shelter programs. That is a dialogue that we are now having with different organizations.

Refugees Deeply: When did you realize that you might need to redesign the shelter?

Karlsson: That was our intent from the beginning. We didn’t know what would work or not. When we started this project back in 2010, it was about making a self-standing frame, that you can wrap with plastic sheeting, to ship in an emergency. When we did some prototypes in 2013, we realized that was too complex and we wanted everything in one flat pack solution.

We also saw that some design elements worked very well in Iraq and did not work as well in Dolo Ado camp in Ethiopia – they’re very two different cultures. This is the challenge with designing fly-in solutions. We don’t know who we are designing for. We don’t know the culture or the environment. What we learned from that pilot is that we need to make the shelters more modular [flexible].

When we started to roll them out we started receiving some feedback. In hot climates like Djibouti, where we have 300 units, it got very hot inside. In the new model we are now releasing in this summer, we have adaptations made to provide even better thermal comfort. We knew this was an area where there was room for improvement.

(Jonas Nyström/Better Shelter)

What we didn’t expect was the challenges we have had with fire safety. In 2016, we started shipping the shelters to Europe. Today, Greece is our second largest destination after Iraq. We also started getting inquiries from authorities in Germany and Switzerland. They wanted to use the shelters both for indoor use – which they were not designed for – and outdoor use. We sent them samples and they did fire testing of units that were furnished inside – which was very different than the fire testing we had done before with unfurnished shelters. Then they told us the shelters cannot be used indoors and you need to have a proper safety distance between the units in order to use them. That was a challenge for us. If you look at the camps in Greece, how crowded they are …

We had worked quite a lot developing fire retardant materials and making sure that the unit doesn’t catch fire easily, but not in the way it was tested in Germany or Switzerland. After that, we thought: “OK, what do we do now? Can we really make a shelter that does not ever catch fire?” We have worked a lot on this during the last year, both in regards to the design of the shelter but also in regards to camp planning.

We did testing on two main issues. One is time to escape the shelter, which should be at least two minutes. The other is to set the safe distance so the fire doesn’t spread to the next unit. This is also a commercial and operational consideration, because if you need to keep great safety distances, there’s not a lot of places where we could use the shelters.

Refugees Deeply: How will that be incorporated into the new model?

Karlsson: We have tried to make shelters of totally incombustible materials that wouldn’t catch fire, but the result was the fire accelerated faster inside the shelter and you have less time to escape. So we engineered it so that when it eventually catches fire, it doesn’t release as much energy. It has been a challenge to make that material but still have the durability and maintain the price. We have also worked to improve ventilation. It has not been straightforward and I think that’s also why it has taken us a year to come to an understanding on this.

We have made some progress in improving the design, but it’s also about camp planning – how close you put units together, what you put inside them, having proper fire exits. We have reduced the safety distance – you can put them closer now with the new design and still be safe.

(Jonas Nyström/Better Shelter)

Refugees Deeply: Around 6,000 structures already been deployed. So those structures remain safe but have new guidelines about the safe distance between them?

Karlsson: Absolutely.

Refugees Deeply: And then there’s another 10,000 shelters that have been produced, but are not currently being deployed until their safety is confirmed?

Karlsson: We have to identify, together with UNHCR, contexts where they can be used safely, where we can maintain the safe distance. They will be used in this context. It’s a very good solution as it is, without any modifications.

[Editor’s note: UNHCR’s Ammar Al-Mahdawi told Refugees Deeply: “The remaining units are in the pipeline to be deployed very soon to Iraq, Cameroon, Algeria, Niger and other operations.”]

Refugees Deeply: What were your procedures for monitoring and evaluation of the shelters – was it incumbent on your humanitarian partners to gather user feedback and other data and communicate it back to you? There have been reports that some partners had concerns about communicating negative feedback.

Karlsson: We do get a lot of feedback from organizations that we are working with as well as from individuals at implementing organizations – about the assembly time and costs or whatnot. We have a way of structuring that internally to see what are the hot topics and what we need to address first.

But one thing that is very complex is getting user feedback from the beneficiaries, and getting honest feedback. I’ve been to interview the families living inside the shelters, but of course it is very difficult as a European guy coming to Ethiopia, going out into refugee camps, sometimes with an armed guard, and then asking questions to a Somali refugee family. The power is not balanced. What other options do they have? Our humanitarian partners are much more sophisticated with this as they’re used to working with user-driven projects. But that’s a big challenge that we cannot be blind to.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

This story has been updated to clarify the relationship between IKEA and Better Shelter.

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