Better Shelter creates sustainable housing for refugees displaced by climate crisis

Social enterprise Better Shelter creates sustainable housing for emergencies, delivering modular homes in flat packages that can be rapidly assembled without the need for tools or electricity

Four shelters built from wood in Rwanda in front of mountains
Shelters in Rwanda
(Image credit: press)

Social enterprise Better Shelter creates emergency and temporary sustainable housing for communities displaced by the climate crisis. With pilot sites for its shelters, called ‘Structure’, currently in India, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Rwanda, its short-term solutions provide a sustainable response to the climate crisis that has left millions homeless.

The company, based in Stockholm, Sweden, delivers modular homes in flat packages that can be speedily assembled without the need for tools or electricity. Equipped with a lockable door and a solar-powered lamp, they are created using materials local to their site, such as bamboo, timber and wattle and daub, and have the potential to be adapted by their occupiers for longer use.

Shelters built from wood in the Indian countryside against a blue sky created by Better Shelter

Shelters in India

(Image credit: press)

‘Scalability, user participation and sustainability are the key elements we consider when designing the shelters,’ says Better Shelter managing director, Johan Karlsson. ‘With Structure, we want to provide a reliable shelter to save lives in emergencies, but as importantly, [it needs] to work as a safe and reliable base that can be upgraded to a more permanent shelter over time, by the end users themselves. We want to leave as many material and technique-related decisions as possible to local experts, and reinforce material traditions and techniques available locally.’

While the units are designed in-house, local architects from humanitarian aid partners play a crucial role in developing plans for the external cladding, considering how it can be best adapted with available local materials to suit its environment. Currently, he says, Better Shelter is working with non-profit organisation Seeds in India, for example, whose director of design Kamal Chawla and team ‘have built family shelters using local material in Kerala, and are now working on a larger project in the Delhi area’, adds Karlsson.

The Structure project has been the subject of a recent architecture exhibition at LA’s Tase gallery, which has been an opportunity to increase awareness and fundraise: ‘Anything showcased at Tase, whether it’s fashion photography or a non-profit exhibition, is presented in a minimal, digestive way, which can be aesthetically pleasing and extremely comprehendible,’ says the gallery’s founder Jessie Andrews. ‘Showing people exactly what they need to see, as opposed to getting as much content into an exhibition as possible, is something I really focus on. A metal structure along with key powerful images, a short bio and QRC donation code allowed us to raise thousands of dollars on opening night.’

It is a timely call to action, as the need for the shelters is rapidly increasing. ‘Research shows that several so-called slow-onset drivers, like drought, desertification and coastal erosion, will increase and thereby lead to further displacement,’ says Karlsson. ‘The numbers vary, but research shows that by 2050 we may have reached 200-250 million people displaced, which is more than twice today’s displaced population. Climate change is not a future threat. It is happening now. How we build local resilience and develop scalable solutions will determine how well we can prevent its consequences.’

Shelter in Tajikistan covered in a white covering in the snow created by Better Shelter

Shelter in Tajikistan

(Image credit: press)


The exhibition is at Tase Gallery until 21 May

Hannah Silver is the Art, Culture, Watches & Jewellery Editor of Wallpaper*. Since joining in 2019, she has overseen offbeat design trends and in-depth profiles, and written extensively across the worlds of culture and luxury. She enjoys meeting artists and designers, viewing exhibitions and conducting interviews on her frequent travels.