A home away from home
Better Shelter is a social enterprise that develops and provides innovative housing solutions for persons displaced by armed conflicts and natural disasters.
Better Shelter is a social enterprise that develops and provides innovative housing solutions for persons displaced by armed conflicts and natural disasters.
Better Shelter RHU AB is a humanitarian innovation project and a social enterprise based in Stockholm, Sweden. We are a team of 20 people dedicated to change the lives of those who have been forced to flee, by providing a safer and more dignified home away from home. We believe that effective and sensible shelter response requires both locally- and globally-made shelter solutions to address different context specific needs in protracted crises and emergencies around the world.
The project, initiated in 2010 in partnership between Better Shelter, the IKEA Foundation and UNHCR, was rolled out on a large scale in 2015, and since then, we have provided shelters in refugee camps, transit sites and emergency response programs in Europe, Africa, South America, the Middle East and Asia, where they are used not only as temporary shelter but also serve as communal infrastructure such as clinics, classrooms and child friendly spaces.
Collaboration and continuous innovation drives us forward. Working side by side with partners around the world gives us the valuable opportunity to monitor quality, to understand partners’ shelter requirements and to both gather and offer feedback on the assembly and use of the shelters. However most importantly, it gives us the opportunity to keep developing the design based on real needs.
The life of a refugee
For many million refugees living in camps or temporary settlements, a tent is the only home they have. Imagine existing in a never-ending world of insecurity and chaos where your life is on hold. You have had to leave your own home, your routines and your everyday life behind. Now, all around are thousands of other people just like you, packed so tightly you can hear every conversation, every argument, and every crying child. Sanitary conditions are poor. Disease is rife. You and your family are hungry and have very little opportunity to find work or to earn money. As a woman you feel unsafe and you have no way of knowing if this misery will last days, weeks or years. Add to this your traumatic memories of violence and war.
For the millions of people living in refugee camps around the world, this is reality. This is life. As refugees often spend several years – even generations – in camps, the simple fact of having a home, a right so fundamental most of us take it for granted, can dramatically improve the physical and psychological situation of refugees.
The Better Shelter is designed to last for at least three years, and is suitable for situations where local materials and labor is in short supply. The Better Shelter does not cause deforestation, as may be the case when using local materials for shelter in large settlements or when the supply of materials is scarce.
Despite the rapid development of materials, technology and production in the private sector during the last decades, little of this knowledge has been applied in the humanitarian sector when it comes to shelter. The vulnerable physical and psychological position of refugees could be improved if they had somewhere to call home, however humble that home may be.
The Better Shelter project takes shape
In 2009 a small team at the Formens Hus Foundation in Hällefors runs a development project committed to the R&D of sustainable design and dematerialisation, and focused on this question. With an essentially nonexistent budget, the project team links up with design universities and companies across Europe to travel to Hällefors and spend a couple of weeks together to develop prototypes. As time passes by, the project becomes more and more serious and the project moves from Formen Hus Foundation to SVID, the Swedish Industrial Design Foundation. A small enterprise is formed around the project: RHU or Refugee Housing Unit AB (today Better Shelter RHU AB).
At the same time UNHCR has contacted Ikea Foundation with basically the same issue – they want to develop a new shelter solution. Ikea Foundation has heard about the RHU project in Hällefors, which is making substantial progress.
The Ikea Foundation quickly realises the potential synergies of building a partnership with the two very different organisations: UNHCR – a UN agency with operations worldwide and decades of technical knowledge and experience in emergency shelter, and a small, dynamic Swedish design team which can act quickly and turn ideas into product solutions. A meeting is arranged, a plan is outlined and the partnership project is initiated in 2010.
UNHCR adds several important requirements. The shelter needs to:
For the Ikea Foundation/ UNHCR/ Better Shelter-partnership two additional aspects is important already in the beginning of the project.
Firstly: the philosophy of democratic design. Products must have good form, function and quality as well as being durably built. In addition, the price must be so low that humanitarian agencies can afford to buy them. The housing unit should not cost more than USD 1,000.
Secondly: they want to use an alternative business model: a social enterprise that applies commercial strategies to maximise improvements in human well-being, instead of maximising profit.
The design of the unit undergoes continuous development. After a few minor modifications, a material originally developed for the automotive industry is selected for the walls and roof. Special plastic screws are developed and a steel frame is produced. The models are transformed into a prototype and the requirement specifications are highly detailed.
In 2013, the prototypes are finally completed and tests in real conditions begin. First up is Dolo Ado, a camp for Somali refugees in Ethiopia. The results of the test are encouraging. The shelters hold up and the refugees give them positive reviews as well as suggestions for improvements. On June 20, 2013 – the UN World Refugee Day – the Ikea Foundation and UNHCR publicly announce their partnership. The news receives an enormous response from the media and other groups interested in refugee issues.
The Housing for All Foundation is formed in November 2013 and formally acquires RHU, renaming it Better Shelter. The Ikea Foundation contributes with funding to the social enterprise allowing it to move from testing to industrial manufacturing, sales and large-scale implementation of shelters in refugee camps across the globe.
Production and delivery
Large scale production of the shelter units begin in 2015 and since then Better Shelter has delivered thousands of shelters to NGOs and their beneficiaries in countries including Iraq, Nepal, Greece, Djibouti, Niger, South Sudan, FYR of Macedonia and Botswana. In early 2017, Better Shelter wins the prestigious Beazley Designs of the Year award.
As a social enterprise, Better Shelter strives to be pioneering within shelter development, by setting a higher safety standard for its product compared to what is the norm for temporary shelters today and to never stop working to further improve the living conditions for the world’s displaced communities.
Better Shelter 1.2
During 2017 and 2018, product development progresses with the launch of an updated version of the shelter. Months of testing and breakthroughs by the team, institutes and suppliers alike bear fruit in the shape of an even better shelter. While shelters serve as temporary homes for refugees as well as for returnees, they also function as water kiosks, classrooms, clinics and emergency distribution centers.
Ikea Foundation, Better Shelter and UNHCR continue to collaborate and make use of respective party’s expertise and innovative thinking.
2018 One shelter, many applications: Terre des hommes becomes a strategic partner of Better Shelter, and together the two provide 1500 shelters for returnees in Iraq, meanwhile, Better Shelter continues to deliver shelters to aid programmes in Bangladesh, Senegal, Iraq, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Burundi, Niger, Mozambique and others.
2017 A new Better Shelter: Months of tests, adjustments and breakthroughs from developers, institutes and suppliers alike bear fruit in the shape of an even better shelter: the 1.2. Meanwhile the shelters begin to be used by people who have been able to return home to Iraq, and Better Shelter wins the prestigious Beazley Designs of the Year award.
2016 Large-scale implementation and continued product development: As Better Shelter begins to be used as temporary housing, registration centres, temporary clinics, storage facilities, classrooms and nurseries in disaster areas, refugee camps and transit zones worldwide, the team continues to develop the design with a constant goal to continue improving conditions for displaced persons. Better Shelter is exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and selected for the museum’s permanent collection.
2015 The first homes are delivered: Production of components begins in a number of factories across Sweden and northern Europe, and the first 10,000 units are delivered to UNHCR. The vision remains the same since when refugee housing unit was originally conceived: to provide a home away from home for the many people forced to flee from armed conflicts and natural disasters.
2014 Gearing up for mass production: SVID RHU AB hands the responsibility for the shelter over to the Housing for All Foundation, established by the Ikea foundation. The construction is now called Better Shelter. The Ikea foundation provides a grant to enable the industrialisation of the product – and the survival of the project.
2013 Prototypes are tested: Prototypes are tested on-site in two UNHCR field operations. First up is Dollo Ado, a camp for Somali refugees in Ethiopia where the shelters are tested for six months. Feedback from residents is very positive, while it also includes suggestions on areas requiring further development based on real needs and requirements.
2012 Prototyping: Work on developing prototype shelters begins. The design requirements have been developed to meet the needs of refugee camps, and include tough standards for resistance to extreme climates and easy assembly. The homes must for example 1) be tall enough to stand in comfortably and have a lockable door to increase safety, 2) take no longer than four hours to mount without tools 3) resist harsh climates 4) have good insulation and ventilation 5) be equipped with a solar panel that operates a smaller ceiling lamp and enables mobile phone charging 6) have a lifespan of at least three years and 7) consist of parts that can be used even after the house has been dismantled.
2011 Refugee Housing Unit AB is formed: A new company, Refugee Housing Unit AB (RHU AB), becomes home for the project, which now has the strength and resources needed to take its next step in cooperation with UNHCR and the Ikea Foundation, and more engineers and designers join the project. The core structure of the shelter – the steel frame – is finalised, and energy is being devoted to developing roof and wall panels that meet every requirement for durability, ease, strength and production potential.
2010 Better Shelter, UNHCR and Ikea Foundation establish a partnership: UNHCR and the Ikea foundation discuss options for refugee homes, which can be packaged and simple to transport. UNHCR, the Ikea foundation, SVID, designers Johan Karlsson and Dennis Kanter meet at the UN in Geneva. The proposal is different from previous tents: a construction consisting of a steady steel frame dressed with modular walls and ceiling, with a longer service life than a tent’s. Both the Ikea foundation and UNHCR agree to the proposal, establishing a partnership and contributing valuable knowledge in the form of needs analysis, design expertise, production conditions, financing and a list of requirements.
2009 The project is developed: The people involved realise that the concept can be more than a student project, and could develop into something bigger. The “refugee housing unit”, a prefabricated house with four sturdy walls, a roof and a lockable door, begins to take shape as a durable construction that can be manufactured, transported and quickly and simply assembled at as low a price as possible. SVID, the Swedish industrial design foundation, takes the project under its wing.
2008 The need is identified and the idea takes shape: How do you solve the situation of residents in refugee camps, where tens of thousands of people live in crowded spaces, often for several years, in tents that only last for a matter of months? This question is posed to a group of students led by the industrial designer Johan Karlsson, in a project at Formens Hus in Hällefors, Sweden. It sparks the idea of creating something more resembling a house than a tent, to give refugees a more respectable, valued and decent accommodation in refugee camps.
The Better Shelter has been developed over several years together with humanitarians, academic institutions and design practitioners, suppliers and experts in various fields. It has been rigorously tried and tested in the field as well as in labs to ensure compliance with Sphere standards and resistance to years’ of use in harsh weather conditions.
We develop our products according to real circumstances with context specific requirements in mind. Better Shelter collaborates closely with partners and supports them in determining the best suitability and application of our solutions. Further, we work together in the planning phase of implementations, where we provide expertise in the use and suitability of the Better Shelter units.
Better Shelter offers training and support to ensure safe and effective assembly and maintenance of the shelters before, during and after the implementation of a program. We help our partners increase their capacity and optimise their available resources, in order to ensure as many people as possible receive the shelter they need, as quickly as possible.
Working side by side with our partners around the world also gives us the valuable opportunity to monitor quality, understand our partners’ shelter requirements in their operations and to both gather and offer feedback on the assembly and use of our shelters. By supporting our partners in quick, efficient and correct assembly of our shelters, we help the humanitarian community to maximise its potential in offering shelter to displaced persons. Our product team continues to refine the solution and work on future improvements in close collaboration with aid and development partners.
We have delivered more than 30,000 shelters to over 40 countries worldwide.
Better Shelter exists for the sole purpose of improving the living conditions and dignity of forcibly displaced men, women and children. We are a social enterprise owned by a philanthropic foundation and our success is measured on achieved social impact, and not financial results. On a yearly basis we track the number of households for which we have provided shelter, as well as how many units have been implemented for other purposes than temporary housing, which may include clinics, classrooms and humanitarian staff accommodation.
Read more about our projects here.
We provide ready-made shelter solutions for projects and operations where locally-sourced materials are scarce. Innovation and design thinking are integral parts of Better Shelter’s strategy, which means that we continuously improve our products and services to meet the changing needs of our partners and beneficiaries in different environments, climates and situations.
Over the past years we have scaled up our monitoring and evaluation activities in a growing number of locations. Shelter performance is tested in a range of contexts, climates and applications. The data gathered during these exercises informs further development of shelter design and production and will help us improve the services that we offer our humanitarian partners.
Mission: To improve the lives of forcibly displaced persons, by providing affordable temporary shelter and a dignified, safer life away from home.
Vision: A world in which all people have a safe place to call home.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organisation dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people. We lead international action to protect people forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution. We deliver life-saving assistance like shelter, food and water, help safeguard fundamental human rights, and develop solutions that ensure people have a safe place to call home where they can build a better future. We also work to ensure that stateless people are granted a nationality.
IKEA Foundation’s mission is to create substantial and lasting change by funding holistic, long-term programmes in some of the world’s poorest communities that address children’s fundamental needs: home, health, education and a sustainable family income, while helping communities fight and cope with climate change. The foundation’s vision is to work toward a world where children living in poverty have more opportunities to create a better future for themselves and their families.
Terre des hommes is the leading Swiss child relief agency. Through its health, protection and emergency aid projects, it provides assistance to over three million children and their families in over 35 countries each year.