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What Are The Core Principles Of Effective Disaster Shelters?

In the wake of a crisis, whether that is the result of natural or man-made disasters, shelter becomes the first and most immediate need, and the quick provision of bespoke shelters can be the difference between life and death.

This is the concept at the core of humanitarian architecture, a school of design focused on helping communities rebuild in the face of unimaginable tragedy, preserve life as much as possible and provide a platform for communities to rebuild from.

As the need for such disaster relief increases for a wide variety of environmental and sociopolitical reasons, humanitarian architecture becomes increasingly important, and here are the principles behind shelters that work for the people who need them.

Rapid Intervention

At the core of humanitarian architecture is that it needs to be very quick to install and implement with the need for as few complex tools as possible.

In a disaster area, electrical power is often in limited supply, if any power infrastructure is available at all, often limited to batteries or small generators that also need to provide other vital infrastructure.

This has led to a variety of different designs, over the course of several decades, from highly elaborate pop-up shelters, robust industrial canvas designs over a steel portal frame, and the military-designed Nissen Hut, notable for being so easy to construct that six soldiers could do so in under 90 minutes.

Whilst most shelter designs are not intended to be put up that quickly, speed is essential for getting vital shelters in place either ahead of a disaster or in its immediate aftermath, to protect people from the elements, avoid further casualties and set up immediate-term infrastructure such as hospitals and canteens.

Prefabrication Vs On-Site Structures

A major discussion point in the development of humanitarian architecture is the question of whether prefabrication or versatile construction techniques are the best option when dealing with disaster relief.

The answer is going to vary depending on the particular circumstances of the disaster itself, but in both cases, the design needs to be mindful of the people who are going to stay in them and how long they are expected to stay there.

The advantage of prefabricated systems is that they are exceptionally quick and easy to put together, are cheaper thanks to economies of scale and are generally modular, allowing them to be expanded both in size and function as required.

However, they do need to be designed for relatively universal circumstances; disaster shelters need to work anywhere in the world for any emergency, and care needs to be taken to ensure there is a transition to more local architecture.

On-site construction tends to be more popular with the people most likely to use them, because it gives people the agency to be a part of the construction process, and allows for the first steps towards rebuilding after survival to occur more naturally than would be possible with prefabricated structures.

Transitional Needs

Humanitarian architecture is inherently about transition; shelters are there to serve the immediate needs of people in the aftermath of disaster, but they also need to provide a platform to allow for reconstruction or the transition to more permanent architecture.

As so many relief centres end up becoming more permanent population hubs, care needs to be taken to make the transitional process as easy as possible, and part of the solution is allowing elements of what is temporary to form the basis of a permanent solution.


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