Ikea's refugee housing is "unusually sensitive
and intelligent" says Alice Rawsthorn


News: Ikea's flat-pack refugee shelters, which have now been tested in Ethiopia and Iraq, have been described by design critic Alice Rawsthorn as being part of "one of the most important design developments of the past decade" (+ slideshow).

Flat-pack refugee shelters by Ikea
Kobe Refugee Camp, Dollo Ado, Ethiopia

The lightweight prototype shelter, developed by the Ikea Foundation alongside the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), was among the projects to receive an honorary award at the recent Swedish Design Awards, which were judged by Rawsthorn alongside Ross Lovegrove, Li Edelkoort and Giulio Cappellini.

Flat-pack refugee shelters by Ikea
Kobe Refugee Camp, Dollo Ado, Ethiopia

First launched in 2013, the Refugee Housing Unit (RHU) aims to offer the millions of children and families forced to flee their homes every year an alternative to traditional canvas ridge tents or more modern hoop tents, neither of which provide insulation or last more than a few months.

Flat-pack refugee shelters by Ikea
Kobe Refugee Camp, Dollo Ado, Ethiopia

"The realisation that the people who need design ingenuity the most, the poorest 90 per cent of the global population, have historically been deprived of it, and the determination to address that, have been one of the most important design developments of the past decade," said Rawsthorn.

Flat-pack refugee shelters by Ikea
Kobe Refugee Camp, Dollo Ado, Ethiopia

Ikea's shed-like shelters are made from polymer panels, laminated with thermal insulation, that clip onto a steel frame to create a 17.5-square-metre enclosure.

Flat-pack refugee shelters by Ikea

Like much of the Swedish homeware brand's furniture products, the structures are flat-packed into cardboard boxes. They can be assembled in four hours and include photovoltaic panels, providing enough energy to power the supplied light or to charge a mobile phone.

Flat-pack refugee shelters by Ikea

"The Refugee Housing Unit is an unusually sensitive and intelligent response that not only promises to provide sorely needed shelter for people in desperate circumstances, but also a robust and congenial place for them to live, possibly for several years, before moving on to permanent homes."

Flat-pack refugee shelters by Ikea

"So far the response has been very positive, unusually so in the intensely political sphere of economic development," she added. "Hopefully its success will encourage other companies and institutions to address humanitarian design with the same thoughtfulness."

Flat-pack refugee shelters by Ikea

The current prototype is over three metres wide and just under six metres long, with four windows and one door. It can sleep up to five people.

Flat-pack refugee shelters by Ikea

The project was launched in May 2013 for a two-year trial. The UNHCR is evaluating its success based on the personal, social and cultural expectations of its target occupants, its suitability to environment, and the logistics of its production and deployment.

Project credits:

Team: Dennis Kanter (creative director), Johan Karlsson (project manager), Jieshi Guo (production manager), John van Leer (designer), Christian Gustafsson (designer), Nicolo Barlera (designer), Rohan Jaguste (3D & design assistance)

  • pop

    IKEA plus junk food is exactly everything that is wrong with this world!

    • Meme

      Not true.

    • RichardWad2U

      I knew there would be at least one d*psh*t on here saying something like that.

      • teacher

        Instead of insulting anyone, you should rethink your philosophy on life! Ikea is, was and will be junk.

        It is insulting for any carpenter, manufacturer, any professional who is in the quest of creation and quality.

        Ikea is surfing on the lack of education in the suburban society (growing fast), just like junk food, Kardashian photos, recent pop music and culture, reality TV etc… It is just a rubbish.

        Problem is, in fact, that there is a mass of people like you (eating McDonald’s, watching reality TV – all that from their ‘Ikeasticly’ wonderful furniture for just £4.99.

        You don’t understand the value of things!

        • Guest

          What an incredibly pompous response to a pretty average comment.

        • RichardWad2U

          You’re right. How silly of me. Ikea should just keep its ideas to themselves and just let those refugees wander around in the sun unsheltered until someone with British sensibilities builds them a more tasteful hut! Standards people! Standards!

        • ainos

          I don’t eat McDonald’s, I don’t watch reality TV, and I don’t know what Kardashian is, but I like Ikea. I’m an architect, I also create things and I like this project, because I think helping people to live in a better situation isn’t junk. Try to value it! And try not to generalise, please.

        • There’s nothing judgmental about you, is there?

        • Patrick

          The value of ‘things’. Get a heart, a brain may follow.

        • As much as I’d like to blame Kardashian for everything, Ikea’s success is because they can make cheap, fairly decent furniture through mass production and tax evasion.

          Then people buy it because no one gets paid enough to pop to the handmade four poster bed craftsman down the road. If your point is that all goods should be high quality you can start by blaming tax loopholes and globalisation exploiting cheap labour abroad. Then blame the people who profit off it. Its certainly not a lack of education…

    • Unclean Genes

      The world is a very simple place from your point of view. Although I would prefer they were not necessary, this project sounds like a nice upgrade for the known refugee tent.

  • Daniel David Rodwell

    Using technology and skills in a compassionate way.

  • Arjay Cee

    Blessedly empty of IKEA’s sweatshop-made MDF and plastic rubbish, I see.

    A worthy project, proving even villains can rise above themselves occasionally.

    • Angry

      I cannot describe how fiercely I disagree with your comment. I think it’s wrong on every level and your house is probably fully stocked with IKEA products.

      You’re right about one thing, this project is very worthy but calling IKEA criminals is disgustingly simplistic and lazy.

    • villainesta

      MDF is found an virtually all but the most expensive furniture. Of course as it’s veneered, you probably didn’t know that.

  • RichardWad2U

    You’ve got to be kidding me…

  • John Worrall

    Little Sun by Olafur Eliasson is another example on where the doing good went wrong, where proper engineering to a clearly defined task is obviously missing. Even worse for buy and enable projects like Little Sun is that these products are literally waste in the first-world and almost useless in the third. A shame.

  • Cantolivre

    I find the snooty dismissal of Ikea by “designers” laughable.

    These are the same people that get upset that Modernist furniture that was meant to be mass-produced objects for low to mid incomes can be brought as cheaper “replicas”, not $7,000 dollar collectors’ pieces.

    Ikea is the true spirit of the Bauhaus ideal, not Vitra.

  • Cantolivre

    … and one more thing. The most important question here after “do they work” is “how much do they cost”. I assume it’s within parameters that are acceptable for refugee camps?

  • Guest

    Well said Sir.

  • Cantolivre

    Anything useful is beautiful.

  • startled

    This story has startled me opening my emails at my comfortable office desk – that this is an improvement to existing shelters just shows how grim the things are.

    These look like a horrible place to spend even a night in. They look hot and stuffy and claustrophobic. I think it’s fantastic that Ikea are putting their capabilities to this task, but at the end of the day this is a sad story about the pool souls who have to spend time in these shelters.

  • scot sims

    You just did what you chastised others for. A negative comment without offering a solution to criticism.

  • LV

    Oh SHUT UP all of you who just want to criticise for the matter of being analytic, critical, stubborn and “intellectual”. Really, why don’t you first ask these people who are living in these refugee shelters what they think of the design and what are their opinion is about Ikea?

    Maybe after that you will have the right to say something, hopefully something that makes a difference. Sorry, I am an architect. I love architecture, design, beautiful designs etc… But this is not about that, AT ALL!

    Wake up! Also, what are you doing to help someone who really needs a place to live or a shelter to survive? Congratulations Ikea! Shame on you, boring people with miserable lives.

    All the best and Merry Christmas Ikea (:

    • Christian Høirup

      Well said LV. Being a fellow architect I couldn’t have written it better. Merry Christmas also to you.

      • LV

        Merry Christmas Christian!

  • Freddy Neat Shee

    Yes, we should force them to give more money to their parasite governments so that they will have less money to actually help people with.

    It is morally superior to give to people at the barrel of a gun than to give to people of your own free will.


    • One of many

      With all due respect, roads aren’t free, clean water is not free, free speech and the military to defend it is not free, minimum wage workers are not free.

      If greedy business wants to sell its crap in a country, they have to pay for the privilege just like the rest of us.

      If not they can get out so someone else can take their place… Look, the invisible hand can work.

  • I’ve seen Peru’s 2007 earthquake survivors living in tents made out of blue plastic bags tied to wooden sticks, living there for more than a year. It was like living inside a blue oven. No water, no electricity and no floor.

    This project is a great idea: it works, it ships, it gets shaped in hours. Maybe 2007 would have been different for many Peruvian families if these houses had reached them.
    In Peru, and in any other developing country, anything – beautiful or not – is welcome when there’s a need.

    I see some readers have never tasted or witnessed what it is to lack of basic needs.

  • fabrizziofg

    I’d like to see it working. Is the material you guys used UV resistant? Can it stand sharp objects? You now it’s usual to have a lot of sharp gravel at some refugee camps.

  • Puya

    The intentions are great but there are a number of issues with this approach, transportation, the temporary nature of these shelters and the fact that in the summer these would be hot boxes and pretty cold in winter; not to mention the poor aesthetics.

    I think a solution like this works way better for the housing situation of the refugees, given that it’s super cheap to build, performs great and involves the refugees in building a community: