Our history

Achieving impact through prototyping and collaboration.

Better Shelter started as a design research project in Hällefors, Sweden, in 2009. Since then, we have delivered over 90,000 shelters across the globe and improved the living conditions for hundreds of thousands of people through collaboration with our humanitarian partners.
Türkiye-Syria earthquake and the war in Sudan

We responded to the eartquake in Türkiye-Syria with more than 6,600 shelters, and to the war in Sudan, supported by the IKEA Foundation.

The war in Ukraine and Norman Foster Foundation

We collaborated with the Norman Foster Foundation, kick started new product development and responded to the war in Ukraine and delivered to rescEU.

Covid-19 and launch of Structure

The team adapted to a new reality in the Covid-19 pandemic. Of the 15,797 shelters we shiped out to 36 countries, 3,000 were used in Covid-19 response. We sent 6,500 shelters to families in Northwest Syria. We collaborated with 24 organisations and held 150 technical consultations online. We piloted the new shelter Structure and launched a fundraising platform.

New locations and positive feedback

We had delivered more than 45,000 shelters to over 45 countries, and thereby put a roof over the heads of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable persons who have fled war and disasters. Impact Initiative surveyd thousands of people living in the shelters in several countries and found that most of them felt safer in the shelter, and that it was the second most preferred shelter (after durable options).

A new shelter

The shelters served as temporary homes and community infrastructure in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. Partners used the modular design to make classrooms, clinics and community centersimplemented worldwide. Better Shelter released an upgraded version of the shelter after months of testing, adjustments and breakthroughs by developers, institutes and suppliers.

Awards and worldwide recognition

Partners implemented the shelters worldwide, including in Niger and Iraq, while the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York exhibited one shelter and included it in the museum’s permanent collection. We won the Beazley Designs of the Year award, and TIME Magazine listed the shelter as one of the best inventions of the year.

Implementation of the first shelters

Production of components began in several factories across Sweden and northern Europe, and the team delivered the first 10,000 shelters to UNHCR operations. UNHCR implemented shelters in Saharan Africa and the Middle East, as well as in southern Europe, where refugees arrived in the thousands every day to escape war in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Testing prototypes in Ethiopia and Iraq

The design team prototyped according to UNHCR’s specifications to address the unique challenges faced in refugee camps. The criteria included standards for resilience in harsh climates, safety, affordability, and simplified assembly processes. Together, they tested the prototypes in a Somali refugee camp in Ethiopia. Resident feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with valuable suggestions for areas for improvement. The team prepared for large-scale production, supported by a generous grant from the IKEA Foundation.

Better Shelter, IKEA Foundation and UNHCR partner

As the team worked on prototypes, UNHCR reached out to the IKEA Foundation with the aim of forging a new shelter solution. The foundation had been following the progress of the shelter project and recognised its potential. Seeing an opportunity for collaboration between two distinct entities—a global UN agency with extensive experience in emergency response, UNHCR, and a nimble Swedish design team able to swiftly transforming ideas into prototypes — they organised a meeting, outlined a plan, and kickstarted the partnership.

The birth of an idea

“Why do displacement camps look like they did one hundred years ago? Johan Karlsson, a recenlty graduated industrial designer, questioned whether it was possible to create a more secure and dignified refugee shelter, one that remains cost-effective for humanitarian organisations. Identifying a pressing need, Johan and his team conceived the idea at Formens Hus in Hällefors, Sweden. The Swedish Industrial Design Foundation (SVID) embraced the project, providing support and guidance.