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A team at Bath looked at how to create appropriate housing for the displaced and dispossessed

In refugee camps in Jordan, such as Azraq refugee camp, surface temperatures inside homes can rise above 48°C
In refugee camps in Jordan, such as Azraq refugee camp, surface temperatures inside homes can rise above 48°C Credit: Scarlett Tiger Coley

History & Theory winner 

Dima Albadra, David Coley  & Jason Hart

Toward healthy housing for the displaced

University of Bath, UK


Over 60 million people are currently displaced due to conflict or natural disasters. Refugees and internally displaced people are often housed in camps deemed temporary, but can end up staying in them for decades. Unfortunately, the housing solutions provided by humanitarian agencies are generally lightweight, uninsulated, and ineffective against high summer temperatures, or winters where temperatures can plunge well below freezing. The struggle to cope with such conditions only adds to the psychological burden of people coming to terms with the loss of loved ones, community and property.

Part of the reason for this situation is that the provision of food, water, sanitation and medical care are attended to as matters of emergency. By contrast, providing shelters that are suited to the local climate and the socio-cultural needs of inhabitants is often far down on the list of priorities. It is common practice for displaced people to be given tents in the first instance and for these to evolve gradually into ‘transitional’ structures made from more solid material. However, resource limitations may inhibit the process of shelter design. Moreover, those responsible for the provision of housing may have to negotiate the sensitivities of host governments anxious about the use of certain materials, such as bricks or concrete, since they can signify permanency to the local population and thus exacerbate inter-communal tensions. 

Healthy Housing for the Displaced is an interdisciplinary project that aspires to develop a new science of shelter design. Our approach is, first, to explore with occupants their priorities with regard to shelter, then to study a variety of ways to deliver solutions that the host government finds suitable, and finally to complete post occupancy surveys to close the design cycle. Our ultimate aim is not to produce a single structure that could be used in all settings but to articulate the process through which shelter that suits each individual climatic, political and socio-cultural context could be identified.

Azraq refugee camp, Jordan. Given cultural and climatic issues, where could windows work in these shelters?
Azraq refugee camp, Jordan. Given cultural and climatic issues, where could windows work in these shelters? Credit: Scarlett Tiger Coley

Our initial work has focused on thermal comfort in camps in Jordan, where we have found surface temperatures in homes in excess of 48°C and completed a wide-ranging critical analysis of existing structures. With limited access to electricity, people often resort to inadequate and degrading strategies in order to keep cool in such temperatures; such as soaking themselves and their clothes with water several times a day. This is not only undignified but also unsustainable, especially in locations where water may be scarce. 

We have shown that designs with low-level windows do not provide sufficient privacy in this cultural context; designs with no windows but small high level openings, provide little ventilation and result in higher temperatures in this physical context. Moreover, it was evident that ignoring local social and cultural aspects in shelter design means that refugees are forced to adapt their shelters to suit their cultural norms in haphazard ways – for example, using tent fabric and metal sheeting to create private shaded outdoor spaces in which they could socialise with neighbours, or create a kitchen large enough for an extended family. Such strategies add to the difficulties faced in upgrading the camp infrastructure and can increase risk of fire. 

Using a mix of building physics and anthropogenic based analysis has allowed us to define a suitable range of temperatures that the occupants find comfortable year round and to develop a series of new designs which are being tested at the University of Bath. 

We hope that our work will inspire architects, designers and all of those involved in shelter design to re-evaluate the current design approach to ‘temporary’ shelters. Shelters need to provide much more than just a roof; they should be thermally comfortable but also cognisant of the culture in which they will be used.

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