Refugee shelter design gains international recognition

Architecture students win in humanitarian category for creating a sense of home.

By Erin Guiltenane
June 2015

When humanitarian crises strike, resources are often stretched thin. With an existing refugee housing shortage, the UN issued a call for help to the international design community, seeking ideas for improving temporary refugee shelters.

Architecture professor Graham Livesey took up the challenge, making refugee shelter design the focus of his Senior Architecture Research Studio. Though shelters by their very nature are intended to be temporary structures, resettlement in certain conflict zones can take much longer — up to five years in the case of Syria. In this design-build project, students in Livesey’s studio, sponsored by EllisDon Construction Services, created prototypes of temporary shelters that catered to the functional aspects of shelter design and kept in mind the most important consideration for displaced families: a sense of home.

Hands-on experience proves enriching and exciting

The opportunity for a hands-on experience to design a project at full scale was an enriching and exciting experience for the student teams. “Our designs needed to answer to the needs every human being is entitled to enjoy, such as protection from the elements, security, and intimacy, as well as preserving the dignity of those who have lost their homes,” says student Jean-Christophe Fortier. “The shelters are, in that sense, complete and true architectural pieces in that they respond to both the physical and sociological aspects of dwelling.”

Adding to the many rewards of a design-build project potentially benefiting the world’s refugees, Amber Lafontaine and Sophia Yi’s design, The Fold, was named the Grand Prize Winner in the Humanitarian category at the Future of Shade Competition, earning them a $10,000 prize. An annual international fabric architecture competition that “challenges conventional notions of how fabric can be used to make exciting, functional spaces,” this year’s Future of Shade Competition saw 190 submissions from 36 countries.

Students' design considers the practical and the personal

Lafontaine and Yi’s design was praised for its practical, yet aesthetically pleasing design. A modular design of attached triangle pods, the modular emergency shelter system allows refugees to define the most appropriate shelter for their families. Designed for warm-weather climates, the floor of the shelter was left open so that families could include a closed heating source, Lafontaine explains. “It’s made of chloroplast and pre-sewn cloth, so there are no special tools needed to set it up.” The heavier fabric she and Yi used in their design is less likely to rip and tear in heavy wind.

“While many of the Humanitarian Category projects think about the technology or the object itself or a deployable pod, they don’t often get at the human aspect of disaster," explained Kyle Barker of MASS Design Group. “What’s really nice about The Fold is that is where it springs from. So rather than being a technical solution, it’s something that allows families to stay intact.”

Also considered in the concept for The Fold was the wayfinding aspect. Amid a wash of white tents, different colours could be used to mark different districts, with different patterns designating one family’s home “sort of like an address,” confirms Lafontaine.

Once all of the students in Livesey’s studio had completed their designs and built the shelters on  campus to test their viability of shelters as part of final studio reviews, most of the students decided to sleep overnight in their structures. “We decided to test the comfort and performance of our realizations,” says Fortier.

“Staying the night in the tangible results of our last semester of work as Master of Architecture candidates fostered the meaningful relationships that we’ve been building over three years of common labour and learning.”



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