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Housing Shortage - To Shelter or To Resettle

May 19, 2016 /

by Oana Rus

It can no longer come as a surprise to anyone that Europe is facing a severe housing shortage due to the ever-growing influx of refugees over the past years.  But could this be an opportunity to reevaluate our notions of temporality and come up with more permanent and sustainable models for refugee housing?

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Photo of the Calais 'Jungle' in France from beyond the fence that separates the registered migrants from the unregistered ones, the planned humanitarian architecture from the encampment. Calais Encampment © 2016 Leopold Lambert

According to Housing Europe's 2015 State of Housing report, not only is there a housing shortage but it might lead to a housing crisis in the future due to the lack of affordable housing. Along with the increased number of incoming refugees, it seems that this is the main social issue for which architects are currently expected to find solutions.

Housing shortages due to migration, either towards big cities or safer places, has been known to be a subject of interest for many architects and designers worldwide. Even though it has been a recurring theme throughout history, the current migration of people brought it into the spotlight again as temporary shelter kits are produced as possible solutions. A number of designers and architects are coming up with concepts for improved shelters and numerous campaigns can be found on Kickstarter - from wearable sleeping bags to actual shelter structures, some even encouraging the use of local materials.

Even though these ideas are meant to improve living conditions of the refugees, the truth is that the majority of these shelter solutions remain just products if we don't consider the bigger picture. Sure, we can talk about the benefits of using local materials, or about the level of comfort they present or should present, but what are we comparing it to? Perhaps we have to reconsider what temporary means in today's context.

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Better Shelter provides for refugee camps around the world with temporary housing solutions as a compact kit of parts that can be assembled into modular and adaptable units. However practical and space efficient may be to have a housing unit packed in a box, it is clear from the images that there is a big difference between the rendered prototype and the actual living conditions. Better Shelter, IKEA, © 2016 Better Shelter


Better-Shelter-IKEA-2.jpgBetter Shelter provides for refugee camps around the world with temporary housing solutions as a compact kit of parts that can be assembled into modular and adaptable units. However practical and space efficient may be to have a housing unit packed in a box, it is clear from the images that there is a big difference between the rendered prototype and the actual living conditions. Better Shelter, IKEA, © 2016 Better Shelter

While most of these ideas are still underfinanced, IKEA recently launched their  'Better Shelter' campaign in order to aid refugees across the globe. It is developed as a kit of parts, and even though complaints have been made about it and one can find numerous reasons to find it improper for long-term use, the fact remains that it is far more durable compared to the ones currently used in most refugee camps. Zaatari camp in Jordan is one of the world's biggest refugee camps, and also an example where Ikea kits have been used in an attempt to improve living conditions. Even though many flaws can be found within its implementation as an encampment, developing temporary common places has allowed people to connect as communities, to grow small 'garage' businesses and to simply continue their daily routine disregarding the temporary aspect of the settlement. Could we see these settlements as cities in progress?

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Humanitarian-aid expert Kilian Kleinschmidt talks at Ars Electronica about the cities of tomorrow and explains how a refugee camp became the 4th largest city in Jordan. He suggests we should start consider these large concentrated areas as cities, to run and plan them accordingly, for the prosperity of the community.


One cannot talk about shelters and not mention Pritzker Prize laureate, Shigeru Ban, an already well-known name in the field of humanitarian architecture. He has developed numerous examples of temporary housing and temporary public facilities, but he has also offered ways of turning temporary housing into more durable solutions, using local materials and low-tech construction methods. On some levels, his work suggests we should start focusing on the challenge of resettlement rather than simply creating better shelters.  

Resettlement nowadays in Europe is a controversial political issue with many possible repercussions, but this topic has always been and should continue to be an issue of interest for architects worldwide - whether we call it social housing, participatory living or resettlement. Incidentally, this year's Pritzker Prize winner, Alejandro Aravena has brought this subject forward and through his work he shows a radically different approach towards social housing. One can only hope this trend is to be followed by other architects as well, leading to more innovation in the field of affordable housing.

Quinta-Monroy-ELEMENTAL-Architects.jpgQuinta Monroy by  Elemental  represents not only a social housing project, but a different approach to humanitarian architecture with regards to budgeting, opportunity of expansion and freedom of personalization. © 2016 ELEMENTAL

The longer time people spend in one place the more they tend to make it like home. In Europe however, people, especially students, tend not to spend more than one year in the same apartment, but still feel at home for that time. Given the fact that for most of the people living in the refugee camps the average stay goes beyond a year, shouldn't we consider a more durable and feasible way of housing them?

Last updated: June 16, 2016

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