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What Factors Make For The Best Emergency Shelters?

The shelter is the most fundamental need that facilities, businesses and people need to function, and the need for portable shelters amid an emergency or disaster situation often goes beyond success and failure and into the realm of life or death.

Relief shelters are very difficult to design because they need to be very easy to build, lightweight enough to transport potentially vast distances and strong enough to handle extreme weather conditions, particularly if there is a chance of secondary impacts after the first disaster.

There are a lot of different approaches to constructing effective emergency shelters based on a series of shared core principles. Here are some elements that make for truly effective shelters.

Individual Or Communal Spaces?

The key timescale designers of effective relief shelters prepare for before, during and the immediate aftermath of a disaster is roughly the first 72 hours. This is the figure that the UK Government used in their own shelter guidance.

This means that the focus is on the most basic of needs in the wake of a disaster. It is about shelter from the elements, protection from exposure, heating and somewhere to rest.

However, outside of these elements, there are a lot of different viewpoints about the most efficient way to provide this, and one aspect that seriously affects shelter designs is whether it is more important to have larger communal spaces or individual shelters for family or household groups.

The balance has shifted more towards the latter. The United Nations guidebook on the subject of shelters emphasises the importance of prioritising privacy and emotional safety as much as having more people find shelter.

In reality, shelter provision is likely to be a mix of individual shelters for family groups and larger shelters to provide communal areas and set up vital facilities such as kitchens and hospitals.

Easy To Build

Shelters must be easy to build, for a variety of practical, social and psychological reasons.

The most self-evident reason is that a shelter having a simple construction process means that it can be constructed quickly, efficiently and with basic tools and training. This means that, regardless of the purpose of the shelter, it can be ready for action as soon as possible after it arrives at the site,

The social and psychological part of this is a matter of ownership and empowerment. The psychological effects of a disaster can be far-reaching and long-lasting, and one of the most damaging emotions that a lot of people feel in an emergency is powerlessness.

People typically want to help, to be a part of the solution, and an easy kit-build shelter is not only important to keep them safe, but it will also help them to feel like they have contributed to the recovery, with psychological benefits that are only recently becoming more valued.

Balancing Innovation and Vernacular Construction

One of the trickier and more disputed aspects of construction is the balance between simplicity and innovation. Many disaster shelter concepts are designed with easy installation and the ultimate ratio of strength and lightness. 

However, in many cases, these designs are too complex for long-term use, as they are just as difficult to repair as they are easy to install.

In disaster situations, tents and shelters brought in from elsewhere are the last resort when structures made from locally available materials are not available, with an understanding that they are only to be used until rebuilding starts properly.


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