Cases and Precedents : emergency shelters | community rebuilding | ecology restoration | disaster prevention



Emergency Shelters

Shelter: general principles

Types of Shelters:

Shelter: general principles

Shelter for emergency situations can range in degree of permanence from a simple blue tarp that barely blocks the rain to a solid, permanent home. In the case of the SE Asian tsunami, good site planning and semi-permanent shelters made from substantial materials can help address the enormous housing crisis. There seems to be a general agreement among aid agencies that it is preferable to encourage community participation in rebuilding efforts. Local building materials are usually easier to obtain, more environmentally appropriate and, when purchased, return money to the local economy.

The Norwegian Refugee Council proposes an integrated understanding of shelter within the wider community – a framework that seems particularly useful for addressing both short-term and long-term shelter needs.


House : its domestic, functional, social and symbolic importance for the owner and his/her family, as their home.

Environment : the setting and siting of the shelter solution; landscape, climate, access to infrastructure and services, education, health, settlement structure (urban/rural) etc.

Livelihood : the mode of subsistence for the family, their products and incomes: access to employment, land, markets etc.

Socio-economic and political context: the house and household in a wide community context such as whether it is a majority or minority situation, the conflict situation and ownership issues.


General information on shelter and site planning for semi-permanent settlements is available from:

The Norwegian Refugee Council ’s publication on Shelter outlines the organization’s experience providing accommodation to refugee populations in Africa and the Balkans.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières provides information on Shelter and Site Planning for refugee camps:

ALNAP (the Ac tive Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action) analyzes Participatory Habitat and Shelter Programs in its handbook on Participation in Humanitarian Action.

ALNAP also posts evaluation reports on the humanitarian response to previous natural disasters.

OXFAM Bangladesh River Basin Programme – flood response and community development

Short-term fabric shelters
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Canvas Tents, tarps and plastic sheeting can provide inexpensive temporary shelter from the elements at minimal cost

Advantages – cheap, portable, easily acquired, some relief agencies prefer explicitly temporary shelters that encourage refugee populations to disperse and/or return home

Disadvantages – fabric tends to rot, canvas and plastic both disintegrate upon exposure to water and UV rays, minimal protection from the elements, feeling of impermanence and physical vulnerability

Local materials
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Thatch, straw bale, stone and adobe can be used to create viable shelters that are relatively inexpensive and semi-permanent. These technologies require a local knowledge base for construction or technical support and training from outside organizations.

Advantages – relatively inexpensive and potentially permanent, participation of future occupants promotes self-reliance, respects local knowledge

Disadvantages – can be time-consuming to construct, require technical skill for construction

Links –

Shelter for Life International’s adobe construction in earthquake-affected Afghanistan

Towards Sustainable Shelter Solutions in Emergency Situations

Prefabricated solutions
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A number of prefabricated shelter solutions are available on the market at a discount to humanitarian aid agencies

Advantages – usually fast to erect, allows quick response to disasters, shippable, well-designed prefab structures can be more comfortable than canvas tents, above-average protection from the elements compared with canvas tents

Disadvantages – can be prohibitively expensive, some concern that importing prefabricated solutions from abroad does not promote local initiative

Links –

Global Village Shelters


Uniteam Quick Shelter

Sandbag Emergency Structure
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Cal-Earth’s emergency shelter uses “the materials of war” (sandbags and barbed wire) to create a semi-permanent to permanent structure.

Advantages – primarily constructed of earth (to fill sandbags), minimum amount of purchased material, allows participation of future inhabitants, good protection from elements and disasters

Disadvantages – requires purchase of some materials, may not be appropriate for all climates, may not conform to local housing models

Links –

Cal-Earth Emergency Shelters

Aga Khan Award for Architecture awarded to Cal-Earth

Bamboo Structure
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Bamboo is readily available in some regions and can provide a sustainable source for both temporary and permanent structures

Advantages – may be locally available, environmentally sustainable, allows inhabitant participation in construction

Disadvantages – requires structural knowledge for construction, vulnerable to rot and insects, may be in limited supply

Links –

International Network for Bamboo and Rattan – prototypes for housing uses

Viviendas Hogar de Cristo – low-income bamboo housing prototype in Ecuador

Building and Social Housing Foundation – award to Viviendas Hogar de Cristo

International Organisation for Standardisation (very) technical information on bamboo structural design

Other design solutions
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Architecture for Humanity has initiated a number of design projects, including international competitions, that offer good models for the application of design to relief endeavors.

Links –

Transitional Housing for Returning Refugees: Kosovo -competition to design five-year transitional housing for the returning people of Kosovo.

Architecture for Humanity program in Bam, Iran

Wired article about Architecture for Humanity