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Emergency Shelter | A Better Tent

March 5, 2010

Photo: Ana Cañizares

A tent doesn’t sound like the coziest option for living, but the fact is, in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, it has proven to be the best solution. Tents are cheap, easily transported, quickly mounted and what’s most important, offer immediate safety and security to potentially hundreds of thousands of displaced and helpless victims. That tents function as a form of instant-to-transitional shelter doesn’t mean, however, that they should amount to the most basic, flapping tarps like the ones the UN has rolled out for decades. If there is a challenge for emergency design, it to make the most effective solutions the most dignified, too.

Here’s a look at a few interesting tent designs, from proposals, to prototypes, to proven, on-the-ground solutions.

Although hosting design competitions is not the ideal way to help in the event of an emergency situation, the challenge motivates a positive direction for the profession, and the ideas that surge from it can provide insight and possibly future implementations. In the case of Core 77’s 1-hour emergency shelter competition, of which it just announced the results, the $500 prize is designated to Architecture For Humanity’s Haiti Earthquake Support Program in the name of the winner:

Lifetent – Winner Dan Ostrowski proposes an inflatable backpack-tent that is lightweight, easy to transport, and occupies minimal storage space when not in use. A GPS tracker was added so that rescue teams could know, before entering a ND zone, where they are most needed. The Lifestraws were added in an attempt to stave off water born pathogens and the use of mosquito repellent fabric was indented to stave off malaria.


ShelterBox: proven

Since 2000, this system has been successfully deployed in over 50 countries, and counting. Each box costs and contains a divisible ten-person tent, blankets, water purification and storage equipment, stove, cooking utensils, basic tools, a children’s activity pack and other vital items. Unlike most tents, these are designed to last for years, and the cost of each one–approximately $740–includes securing permission to use land and coordinating who gets help first. 448 ShelterBoxes have already been committed to Chile, and over 8,000 have been sent to Haiti so far, although unfortunately, not enough.

Photo: Elke Kruger


Hexayurt: prototype, testing

It’s not a tent, but its meant to be just practical and even more cost-effective. Vinay Gupta’s patente-free six-sided plywood structure can be quickly mounted with standard industry materials with as little as $100. In collaboration with Science for Humanity, the structure is being tested to withstand tropical storms so that it may be employed in the Haiti relief effort. UN Dispatch considers it a possible alternative, and some architects around the world are integrating it into their shelter programs.


ReactionHousing System: prototype

For Michael McDaniel, it was the notoriously costly, clunky and ghastly FEMA trailers that compelled him to devise an alternative response to disasters like Hurrican Katrina in the United States. It’s IKEA-like concept is based on a kit of parts that primarily consists of housing units called Exos, accessories, and supporting infrastructure, at less than $5000 per structure. Watch his interview with GOOD, and the video below explaining the concept.


Global Village Shelters: proven

Its founder, Dan Ferrara, says one benefit of these shelters over tents is that their sturdiness “provides a sense of home.” The solid, waterproof structures are made of extruded polypropylene and shipped as flat packs. Small 65-square-foot units cost around $1,000 when ordered in bulk, but take up to eight weeks to manufacture. Certainly a better option as transitional shelter, they are currently sending 100 units to Haiti.


For more emergency shelter designs, check out Design21’s ShelterMe.

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