The recent refugee crisis has caused headlines around the world, with hundreds upon thousands of people fleeing the conflict in Syria and neighboring war-torn nations for a better life in Europe. But this is just a fraction of the refugee problem, with more than 43 million people globally living either as refugees or “internally displaced” people, many of them in UN-provided tents. While the UN tents offer an adequate short-term solution, the reality is that many of these refugees remain in limbo for years at a time, waiting to either return to their own countries or have their asylum status approved abroad. Housing that is built to last and offers space for large families, together with amenities for a comfortable existence has, in the past, been lacking. Until the new IKEA housing.

But one big business that has firmly made their stamp of support for refugees is Swedish furniture giant IKEA. IKEA has teamed up with UNHCR to provide a solution for refugee housing. They’ve harnessed their experience in creating flat-pack furniture which can be assembled using language-free manuals to create a $1000USD flat-pack, fold-out “Better Shelter” unit. They are being shipped out to tented refugee camps across the globe, with a few features that make it a true stand out in dealing with the overcrowded and extreme temperatures often experienced.

IKEA Housing, or the “Better Shelter”

IKEA Housing

This flat-packed, fold-out housing structure designed by IKEA was first trialed in Ethiopia and along the Syrian borders back in 2013, with its success seeing a mass scale roll out to address the refugee crisis that is currently impacting the world. It was designed to address many of the problems currently associated with the UN-provided tents, which CEO of the Ikea Foundation, Per Heggenes, describes as offering “little comfort, dignity or security….they are cold in the winter and hot in the summer…they have no electricity or lighting, limiting refugee families’ ability to lead a normal life.”

The shelters are designed to house families of up to six within refugee camps in all corners of the globe, most of which are in third-world countries trying desperately to deal with their own issues, together with a sudden influx of people. True to IKEA’s design philosophy, the “Better Shelter’s walls, roof, floors, doors and windows all come flat-packed in cardboard boxes, making for ease of transport to refugee camps and easy assemblage.

They have been designed to be built in as little as four hours, without the need for any tools, which makes them a good potential solution in regions where skilled labor is at a shortage. Displaced peoples can assist in building the fold-out shelters to house their families, with the high-ceilinged design allowing for standing room inside. At 17.5 square meters, the units are twice as large as the tents currently used by the United Nations to house refugees, making for a significant improvement in living conditions for families. The “Better Shelter” unit has also been designed with solar panels to provide electricity and lockable doors to give refugee families a sense of security within the camps.

How does this new IKEA housing work?

IKEA Housing

The “Better Shelter” is made from a lightweight polymer called Rhulite which has been laminated with thermal insulation which easily clips onto a steel pole frame. It is designed to allow light in during the day (while at the same time deflecting heat), but also prevent light sources from escaping at night, addressing the issue of shadows and privacy that comes with tented accommodation. Solar panels generate enough electricity for a USB port and light inside the unit, allowing occupants to read and socialize in the evenings.

The chief of shelter and settlement at the UNHCR, Shaun Scales, has praised the design, saying: “The units comprise the best elements of a tent in that it’s pre-packed, of minimal weight and produced to core standards, but it also has a rigid, self-supporting frame and it provides more physical security and dignity for its occupants.” While the units cost around three times more than a standard UNHCR tent, they have been designed to last three years and strong enough to withstand the often harsh climates of refugee camps. This is a marked improvement on the six-month lifespan of the standard tents. They also feature natural ventilation and come equipped with mosquito nets, something that is critical for the health of the refugee camp population.

The Future of the “Better Shelter”

IKEA Housing

IKEA has announced that it will produce 10,000 flat-pack shelters for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), with the first mass delivery heading to refugee camps in Iraq where an estimated 2.5 million refugees are currently displaced by ongoing conflicts in the region. So far the IKEA Foundation has invested around 3.8 million USD in the project, with a Sweden-based group known as the Refugee Housing Unit working with the UN on the design. Each of the “Better Shelters” initially cost around $10,000 to make, but once they go into mass production, that price is expected to drop to around $1000.

The Refugee Housing Unit is also researching the ongoing developments in Organic Photo Voltaic cell technology, in that hope that eventually these could be printed onto the shade net and capture enough solar power to operate water purification and cooking devices.

One of the real attributes of the “Better Shelter” design is that it is flexible and adaptable, and can be modified and enhanced during its lifetime. Earthen walls and even corrugated metal roofing can be added to the core unit structure to reinforce it over time and expand the space available as families grow and situations change.

While no family wants to be living for extended periods in the crowded conditions of a refugee camp, IKEA’s housing design offers a little more comfort, space and privacy while they await what the future holds.