Better Shelter’s Johan Karlsson on Their Emergency Housing Innovation, Structure

Modular, customizable homes that have been developed to reflect real-life experiences and needs

Humanitarian innovation project and social enterprise Better Shelter‘s mission lies within its name and the organization’s latest modular emergency housing provides more protection and dignity for those surviving the aftermath of disaster. Much more than a tent, Structure (which can be used as temporary housing, classrooms, clinics or other community-centric spaces) is not only sturdier and longer-lasting, it also gives owners the option to upgrade the structure and add local materials—making them more practical, permanent and personal.

by Sameer Raichur

As climate change continues to displace people rapidly (various studies estimate from 200 million to one billion climate migrants by 2050) more and more human-centered solutions are required. As Stockholm-based Better Shelter’s Managing Director Johan Karlsson explains, “Safety and protection come first, however we believe that creating a home for yourself that is appealing and personal is important, even if that home is temporary or transitional. But what makes a home the most is living with your loved ones.”

by Sameer Raichur

The team at Better Shelter centers their design development on real people, relying on feedback from refugees and, while every person’s experience is different, one demand was almost universal: “the possibility to close a door behind oneself,” Karlsson says. “It is difficult to design a one-fits-all product, and therefore our intent was to make Structure as versatile as possible. These shelters will be used all over the world and they must fulfill many basic requirements, such as having a low shipping volume, to be quick and easy set up, have a low cost, a long lifespan, etc.”

by Sameer Raichur

Core to the design and project as a whole is a quick transition from emergency to recovery and relief. And, while local solutions are always preferable, many times they are not possible due to political situations creating hurdles and a lack of local materials or time—making initiatives like Better Shelter crucial. “A Structure can be shipped in the aftermath of a disaster, in the disaster relief phase, when people are in need of water and food, healthcare and shelter,” Karlsson says.

“The Structure frame can be set up in a few hours, draped in standard-sized tarpaulin to provide immediate, basic shelter and protection against the elements,” he adds. “In this phase, local markets and supply chains, infrastructure may be broken, and local material might be difficult to obtain. If building material, however, is available, or becomes available after some time, the tarpaulin can be replaced with local material which will prolong the shelter’s durability.”

Courtesy of Better Shelter

Each Structure has a lifespan of approximately a decade. In meters, Structure’s dimensions are 5.68 long by 3.32 wide by 2.83 high, and each is designed for five people. Assembly takes about two hours, and it can be disassembled (which takes around the same amount of time), packed, moved and reassembled elsewhere. But aside from these statistics, Structure needs to be versatile—and is proving to be so already. Karlsson lists a few ways in which they have been modified to suit specific communities: “Draped in tarpaulin in Tajikistan, where it serves as Covid-19 triaging units; plastered with mud in India to serve as family homes; and in Afghanistan with wood panels to protect from the harsh winter.”

While function remains paramount, the team at Better Shelter also focuses on how aesthetics can lift (or deplete) the spirits of people—perhaps especially those who are displaced from their homes. “Structure is developed to allow users to make aesthetic and functional design decisions themselves to a certain degree: the frame has a predefined shape (but, thanks to its modularity, it can be made in different sizes), but walls and roof can be made of material that is available in the region,” Karlsson says. “How it is decorated inside is up to the residents!”

Courtesy of Better Shelter

Better Shelter began back in 2010 in collaboration with the IKEA Foundation and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. Its overarching mission mission is to improve the lives of people who find themselves displaced “by providing affordable temporary shelter and a dignified, safer life away from home,” Karlsson explains. “Since 2015, Better Shelter has delivered more than 60,000 shelters in over 60 countries worldwide.”

This year, Better Shelter intends to scale up the Structure project. Already partnering with SEEDS and Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, they work with various NGOs and members within the private sector. “We collaborate with established organizations with a mission to serve and support vulnerable people in different ways,” Karlsson tells us. “We are still exploring Structure’s various applications together with partners and beneficiaries.”

Those of us in the Global North can support by donating: $365 covers the cost of a five-person Structure, while $73 covers the cost per person. There are also monthly or one-off donation options.

Hero image by Sameer Raichur, courtesy of Better Shelter