Assembly Required (Tools Included)

Ikea Foundation/Better Shelter
Ikea Foundation/Better Shelter


This summer and fall, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will deliver the first of 10,000 modular shelters to camps in several countries, including 1,500 to northern Iraq for Syrian refugees and internally displaced Iraqis. The dwellings—jointly developed by the UN, the Ikea Foundation, and a small, altruistic-minded design team called Better Shelter—employ the Swedish retailer’s flat-packed sensibilities and language-free assembly instructions.

Better Shelter Housing Units, as they are called, can be put together in four to eight hours using only the tools provided. Constructed of polymer panels that snap onto a metal A-frame, they provide standing room, four windows, a lockable door, and 188 square feet of living space, deemed adequate for housing five people. A roof-mounted solar panel powers a USB outlet for charging small electronics and a built-in lamp. Besides privacy and security, the shelters are designed to offer relief from the varying climates they’ll be used in, deflecting and retaining heat as necessary.

The units’ target price is less than $1,000 each, and they are designed to last three years. Tents, by comparison, have only a six-month lifetime. “We have more than 50 million people who are displaced due to natural disasters and conflict,” says Johan Karlsson, the head of Better Shelter’s business development. “The average stay of a refugee in a camp is 17 years, so we need to provide something that can be a home—however humble this home may be—for people who are living in this tough situation for such a protracted period.”

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Sara Goudarzi is a freelance writer.


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