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Ikea refugee shelter wins Design Museum’s top award

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The Design Museum has named the Ikea Foundation’s flat-pack refugee shelter, Better Shelter, as its overall Beazley Design of the Year champion

The temporary structure, which can be assembled in four hours, was designed by Johan Karlsson, Dennis Kanter, Christian Gustafsson, John van Leer, Tim de Haas, Nicolò Barlera, the Ikea Foundation and UNHCR. 

The shelter won in the architecture category ahead of shortlisted projects including Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern Switch House; BIG’s VIA 57 West tower in New York and Assemble’s Granby Workshop in Liverpool.

Ikea better shelter

Ikea better shelter

It also took the overall top prize, seeing off winners from five other categories including David Bowie’s Blackstar album cover by Jonathan Barnbrook in the graphics category and a coffee cup for astronauts in the product category.

Launched in 2015 by the United Nations refugee branch and the non-profit Ikea Foundation, there are now some 30,000 Better Shelters in use worldwide, including on the Greek island of Lesbos, where aid agencies reported the structures were ‘dramatically improving’ conditions for refugees. The judges chose Better Shelter as a ‘clear demonstration of scalable design that has the ability to make a worldwide impact’.

The modular shelter, designed to house four people, features a lockable front door, solar-powered wall, LED light, mobile phone charger and windows. It comes flat-packed in a two-box kit, along with all the required tools and an instruction manual. 

The Design Museum’s ninth annual awards, sponsored by insurance conglomerate Beazley, celebrate ‘the world’s best designs’ and were presented at an event inside the Design Museum’s new home in Kensington.

Previous winners of the Beazley Design of the Year include the London 2012 Olympic Torch and the Barack Obama Hope poster.

Other winners from this year’s remaining categories were a bicycle helmet with integrated lights, brake, and turn signals in the transport category; a video of eight-year-olds in Madrid providing their thoughts on fashion advertising in the fashion category and a robotic surgeon in the digital category.

Q&A with the Better Shelter design team

Can you briefly explain your product for architects?

Better Shelter is a modular construction and is something between a tent and a house. It comprises a number of elements and components; a ground-anchored steel foundation covered with plastic panels, which form walls and a roof. There are four windows and a lockable door, as well as a PV solar system on the roof, which gives power to an LED light and mobile phone charger. The shelter requires four people to set it up, and takes roughly 4-6 hours to assemble without the need for additional tools. The shelter is developed according to a long list of requirements concerning weight; cost; volume; durability, etc.

How is the design evolving?

The shelter has a modular design which makes it adaptable. For example, two shelters can be linked together at the gable walls, forming a longer construction suitable for healthcare facilities, as seen in Nepal last summer. A number of add-ons are being developed, including a shade net for hot climates and a winterisation kit for cold climates.

Do refugee camps need masterplanning?

They do indeed. A camp may either already be established, with refugees having settled on a location before humanitarian organisations arrive, or site planning is possible prior to their intervention. As an organisation, Better Shelter is not involved in the planning of refugee camps. Refugee camps can grow quickly and evolve into major ‘tent cities’ – the Dadaab camp in Kenya hosts almost 350 000 people, for example.

To mitigate the transmission of diseases (a result of overcrowding and poor hygiene/sanitary facilities) and to avoid fires spreading in a camp, careful site planning needs to be in place. This should happen as early as possible to minimise overcrowding and to prepare for provision of efficient aid services.

Shelter must be provided during the first week of an aid organisation’s operations in a camp and should be placed a certain distance from each other. For example, the recommended area available per person in a camp is 30m² and for shelter space, 3.5m² per person.

Sanitary facilities must be located a certain distance from the housing areas, but not be too far away for residents to reach. There should not be more than 250 persons per water point and 20 persons per latrine. These are a very few examples of the many installations and factors that must be considered and included in a strategic site plan.

Are there similar designs or products that you admire?

Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes – ‘Bucky domes’ – are clever, scalable and beautiful. Also the Jieldé lamp, designed in the 50s to help industrial workers cast light on their work, while being useful is modern and built to last.


Beazley Architecture Design of the Year shortlist


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