Before the Next Hurricane: The Designers Saving Communities Struck by Disaster

From IKEA's Better Shelter to Japanese cardboard structures – The world's leading architects design the newest solutions for natural disasters

Naama Riba
Naama Riba
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From the Tel Aviv Museum of Art exhibit “3.5 Square Meters: Constructive Responses to Natural Disasters.”
From the Tel Aviv Museum of Art exhibit “3.5 Square Meters: Constructive Responses to Natural Disasters.”Credit: Shiguru Ban and Co.; Design: Adi Tako
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

In the entrance wing of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s new building stands a white, 17.5-square-meter structure. It’s made of a metal frame covered with semi-solid walls, and it has four windows, a high ceiling and a lockable door. Inside there’s a lamp installed that draws power from the sun and has a USB port to charge electronic devices.

This shelter for displaced persons was designed by the Better Shelter group in conjunction with the IKEA Foundation and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The shelter is part of a exhibit called “3.5 Square Meters: Constructive Responses to Natural Disasters,” that includes a variety of design, planning and technological solutions for communities struck by natural disasters or wars that can be applied at diverse sites all over the world.

A shelter for displaced persons designed by the Better Shelter group. One is on display at the entrance to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.Credit: Better Shelter/ IKEA Foundation / UNHCR

These include examples of temporary structures set up at disaster sites and products that were produced especially for refugees. The name of the exhibit is derived from the minimum amount of space needed in a shelter as determined by the International Red Cross.

What does a commercial company have to do with housing solutions for natural disasters? The exhibit’s curator, Maya Vinitsky, the deputy curator of the architecture and design department and a member of the Relevant Design for Disaster, Bezalel research group, rejects the notion that commercial companies deal with this field solely to get good public relations. “We aren’t nave,” she says. “It’s clear there’s a connection to profits. But the agenda of these companies is that if the knowledge exists, why not use it and disseminate it?”

In a joint essay, members of the Swedish-based Better Shelter – Marta Terne, Johan Karlsson and Christian Gustafsson – write that they sought to design a shelter that could be compactly shipped and easily assembled and disassembled. It meets the broad definition of a house – and in fact looks like one – and its simplicity allows changes to be made in accordance with the needs of its users. In their field research they found that most shelters used by disaster victims couldn’t be adapted to their needs and were therefore abandoned.

Lightweight structures designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban.Credit: Saraf Foundation

Terne told Haaretz that the structure they designed has many advantages. It is sturdier and more comfortable than a tent, and can be easily boxed and air-shipped. Local materials can be used to enhance the shelter and it can be adapted for various purposes, including use as a clinic, storage room or office. Families that want to feel at home can remain there for years and recreate their old home in it.

The exhibit is divided into four topics: “Sharing knowledge,” which includes projects by architects, designers and engineers who teach residents to repair the damage in their environment themselves using local resources; “Do it Yourself,” a compilation of projects that were sent to disaster areas and are meant to be put together by local residents; “Social Technology,” which focuses on the use of social networks as a channel for reporting disasters and providing assistance; and “Storytellers,” a category of projects that are not of a design or architectural nature, but provide digital documentation of the disaster areas and whose purpose is to increase awareness of the situation and help its victims.

Another project that’s part of the exhibit is “Stories Whose Voices Aren’t Heard.” This includes an interview done with a 12-year-old Nepalese boy, Santush Gajural by Neta Kind-Lerer, who volunteered on a project to rebuild villages that were destroyed in the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. The temporary home in which Gajural was living was made of tin and bottles, and had to be rebuilt after every heavy rain.

Khumjung Secondary School in Nepal was built using modular wood frames filled with recycled bricks, in a design by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban.Credit: Saraf Foundation

“In our old home we had a place to sleep, we had everything,” Gajural says. “Now, everything gets wet when it rains. We have no place to put our things, our crops, the wheat, rice and corn. My parents have a problem with money right now. They want to build a new house someday and they have a plan, but right now they can’t. We’re happy in our new house.”

Is there a recommended method for dealing with disaster victims? Is it better to import structures like those made by Better Shelter, or to make them at the site? “Since every natural disaster is different by innumerable parameters, there’s no preferred method that can be planned in advance,” explains Vinitsky. “Every community differs in terms of daily life, the regional infrastructure and its level of preparedness. Of the issues raised by the exhibit, an understanding emerged that there are no small number of parallels solutions or work methods suited to different regions.”

Vinitsky notes that along with shelters meant for relatively long-term use, there are also short-term solutions that can be adapted to specific areas. “The Earthship project by American architect Michael Reynolds is aimed at Third World countries, where it’s customary to use local materials for construction. But there’s also the Airbnb project that allows a family that’s been harmed to use the internet to find shelter with strangers prepared to host them,” she says referring to the online hospitality service that launched a disaster response program in 2013.

Better Shelter (IKEA Foundation, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR): A Home Away from Home, Since 2010Credit: Better Shelter, IKEA Foundation,

One of world’s leading architects dealing with design for disaster victims is the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who since 1995 has been an adviser to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He founded the Voluntary Architects Network and is known for his use of cardboard to build lightweight structures. In his activities Ban demonstrates how the presence of architects and designers is crucial at disaster sites.

The exhibition’s catalog includes a detailed report that Ban wrote in Nepal after the earthquake, in which he examines the unique difficulties in the area. In his mind he said he sketched out a new building method – a series of walls made from modular wood frames 90 centimeters by 201 centimeters to be filled with recycled bricks. This method was actually used over the past few months to build a high school in the village of Khumjung in the eastern part of Nepal, which is 3,790 meters above sea level on the route to Mount Everest. The structure contains several earthquake-resistant classrooms.

The exhibition is a reminder to designers and architects that they can’t ignore the world’s problems. In Israel, for example, it’s hard to find architects seeking planning solutions for the African migrants, the Palestinians or the Bedouin. Could this exhibit inspire involvement? Vinitsky says that following her research she understood that solutions can come from a wide variety of professionals, “among them architects, designers, engineers, social activists, computer people, doctors, and of course members of the community in the field.”

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