Building the best shelter for the displaced

Late last week -- after months of hard work, design, and planning -- students from three different schools gathered at John Brown University to present their solutions to the growing need for shelter of displaced people worldwide.

World Vision has been on the front lines, responding to the challenge of providing contextually appropriate shelter that offers privacy, security, and refuge from the elements -- all while being resistant to future disasters, like flooding and earthquakes.

As a part of the World Vision team that responds to emergency situations, I have firsthand knowledge of the importance of temporary shelters and was called upon to judge the student's designs.

Students were challenged to design a structure that would accommodate a family of four for at least a year. The structure design needed to be cost-effective (under $1,500 to produce) and lightweight, preferably under 330 pounds. Students were also judged on the structure’s ability to be set up quickly and easily, using only simple tools.

Isnino Siyat, 22, builds a flimsy, makeshift shelter with borrowed materials on her second night at Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya during last year's drought and food crisis in the Horn of Africa. (Jon Warren/World Vision)

After participants made presentations on their designs, they were put to the test with simulated elements. Student judges stayed in the shelters overnight to test their comfort and usability. Sandbags were piled on top of the structures to test their sturdiness under the weight of snow. The designs were blasted with fire hoses to emulate hurricane-force winds and rain.

Finally, structures were placed on a shake table to rate their performance in an earthquake environment.

Two shelters stood out to me. One was an aluminum geodesic dome, reminiscent of a jungle gym on a playground, with a heavy-duty tarp. The other was a triangle-shaped white Coroplast® (corrugated plastic) and aluminum stud structure.

I saw both structures working well within different contexts. The geodesic dome would be a substantial upgrade to many cultures living in the Horn of Africa and West Africa. The Coroplast® structure would be acceptable in many Asian contexts; also, I would have been quite comfortable sleeping and working in it while responding to the earthquake in Haiti a few years ago.

After seeing each design's performance under man-made simulations of high winds, heavy snows, earthquakes, rain storms, and timed setup, the geodesic dome from John Brown University came out as the winner, pulling ahead of the other structures with its light weight and fast, easy setup.


    Very interesting, and needed. Pictures of them would have made it even better.

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