The Better Shelter story

Anyone who has ever been camping knows that a tent does not provide the best shelter in rain, wind or freezing temperatures. Nor is a tent ideal when the sun is beating down, the air is standing still and the thermometer is pushing 30 degrees celsius.

Add to this a harrowing life situation, a sense of personal chaos and insecurity, 25,000 neighbours living in a cramped area where you can hear every sound, poor sanitary conditions, a lack of food and no idea as to how many months or years you may be forced to stay. For the millions of people currently living in refugee camps around the world, this is reality.

Kawergosk_150311_7552Tents offer a good solution for putting a roof over people’s heads quickly in a disaster. However, tents only last for six months, while refugees often spend several years – sometimes generations – in camps. But is it possible to manufacture, ship and assemble a refugee shelter quickly at a reasonable price?

Despite the rapid development of materials, technology and production in the private sector during the last decades, little of this knowledge has been transferred into 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. A better shelter.

In 2009 a small team at the Formens Hus Foundation in Hällefors ran 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 linked up with design universities and companies across Europe to travel to Hällefors and spend a couple of weeks together to develop prototypes. As time passed by, the project became more and more serious and the project moved from Formen Hus Foundation to SVID, Swedish Industrial Design Foundation who saw great potential in using design to further develop the project. SVID formed a small enterprise was around the project:  Refugee Housing Unit RHU AB.

At the same time UNHCR had contacted IKEA Foundation with basically the same issue. IKEA Foundation had also heard about the RHU-project in Hällefors that now made substantial progress.

The IKEA Foundation quickly realised the potential synergies of building a partnership with the two very different organisations: UNHCR – a UN agency with decades of technical knowledge and experience in emergency shelter, and a small, dynamic Swedish design team who could act quickly and turn ideas into product solutions. A meeting was arranged, a plan was outlined and the partnership project was initiated in 2010.


  • have a standing height and lockable door to increase security.
  • take four hours to assemble without tools.
  • withstand all harsh climate conditions: extreme cold, extreme heat, sandstorms, rain and powerful winds.
  • be well insulated but also well ventilated.
  • withstand an impact, flooding and heavy weight.
  • be equipped with minimal electricity: a solar panel to power a small ceiling lamp and a mobile phone charger.
  • last for three years
  • comprise parts that can be used for other purposes once the shelter is disassembled.
  • weigh less than 100 kilograms


For the IKEA Foundation/UNHCR/RHU-partnership two additional aspects was 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 durable built. In addition, the price must be so low that different kind och buyers can afford to buy them. The housing unit should not cost more than USD 1,000. Secondly they wanted to use an alternative business model: A social enterprise: to apply commercial strategies to maximise improvements in human well-being, rather than maximising profit.

The design of the unit underwent continuous development. After a few minor modifications, a material originally developed for the automotive industry was chosen for the walls. Special plastic screws were developed and a steel frame was produced. The models were transformed into a prototype and the requirement specifications were highly detailed.

In 2013, the prototypes were finally completed and tests in real conditions began. First up was Dollo Ado, a camp for Somalian refugees in Ethiopia. The results of the test were encouraging. The shelters held up and the refugees gave them a positive review. On June 20, 2013 – the UN World Refugee Day – the IKEA Foundation and the UNHCR publicly announced their partnership. The news received an enormous response from the media and other groups interested in refugee issues.

The Housing for All Foundation was formed in November 2013 and formally acquired RHU, renaming it Better Shelter. The IKEA Foundation contributed SEK 40 million to the company to allow it to move from testing to industrial manufacturing, sales and assembly of shelters at refugee camps across the globe.

IKEA Foundation, RHU and UNHCR have been working together ever since in a true partnership to capitalise on respective expertise and innovative thinking. The company’s vision remains the same: to improve the vulnerable position of refugees – to deliver a humanitarian impact.

Better Shelter aims to be the leading innovation company in scalable solutions for the world’s refugees. The goal is to use engineering to provide refugees with better conditions for physical and mental survival.

This not only includes shelters, but also other products currently in the planning stage, as well as a comprehensive concept that would see Better Shelter assume consultancy for everything from evaluating potential sites for refugee camps and planning their development to establishing production in close proximity to refugee areas and providing technical training for assembly and maintenance.

24 Mar, 2015 Published by