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Lasting temporary shelter

Guy Degen, BerlinJuly 23, 2014

How can emergency shelters provide refugees with more than just a tent? A German designer has developed a shelter system that offers a flexible space and a more dignified home under canvas.

Digital impression of the DOMO tent design by Daniel Kerber
Image: morethanshelters 2013

When you think of a refugee camp, what probably comes to mind are neat rows of white tents, communal kitchens and people trying to make the best of a bad situation that's supposed to be temporary.

The reality can be quite different.

Refugee camps are often located in remote and difficult environments. And whether it's because of a natural disaster or conflict, displaced people may find themselves living in tents or improvised shelters for years, sometimes decades.

"A tent is very good to deliver short term relief. It's very lightweight and can be transported to any area of the world very quickly. But then the problems start," says Daniel Kerber.

The Berlin-based designer leads an organisation called morethanshelters.

His team has designed a new shelter system called Domo. It is a tent-like shelter that is easy to set up and long-lasting. But unlike standard humanitarian-issue tents, the Domo is highly adaptable to climates and to people's needs.

Kerber says the Domo concept is to focus more on the needs of refugees than simply serving the logistical needs of humanitarian agencies providing mass emergency shelters.

Part of Daniel Kerber's Domo design
Close up: the structure of the Domo "pops out of nothing"Image: Guy Degen

"We have to understand that these people, wherever they come from, bring their culture, they bring their heritage, they bring their spatial patterns. So Domo is a more bottom up spatial design, instead of a top down approach," he says.

Pops out of nothing

The Domo shelter package is designed to weigh the same as a standard tent, approximately 50 kilograms.

From the outside, the basic Domo resembles a big igloo in shape. It has six sides and is covered with a cotton shell. Inside the 25 square meter shelter, the ceiling is nearly three meters high, making it very comfortable to walk around.

The curved frame that forms a dome is made of six fold out arms which can be made from, either plywood, metal or even recycled plastic.

"This is our main invention. We had to invent a very stable structure that pops out of nothing," says Kerber.

He says the lattice-like fold-out arms allow two people to easily erect a Domo without any additional tools.

Designer Daniel Kerber
Kerber says temporary shelters should do better to meet the needs of refugeesImage: Guy Degen

"Once you unfold it and lock it - you can do that within 10 seconds - you now have a huge diameter covered and if you put six of those together you have the room defined. And that's quite a big room that comes out of a box in a few minutes and is really stable."

Kerber says that standard camp tents need to be replaced every six to eight months. However the main structure of the Domo can last around 10 years - only the outer fabric needs to be replaced or upgraded according to climatic conditions.

Moreover, along with the Domo's resilient physical properties, Kerber believes humanitarian shelters should avoid a "one size fits all" approach. He says they should take into consideration people's cultural and social needs.

"If you have an African family coming to a refugee camp, like 20 people, today they are all separated because they have to live in a five person tent," he says.

"If you take the Syrian crisis now, you see the refugees coming across the border into Jordan, basically they are huge families, there are kids so then you have to separate kids from their mother."

Prototypes of the Domo
Field tests have been successful - but the Domo needs full certificationImage: morethanshelters 2013

He says the Domo changes this.

A shelter for diginity

The stress of living in a refugee camp can sometimes be highly volatile. The Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in northern Jordan for example is now home to more than 100,000 people.

Since opening in 2012 it's evolved into a giant city and violent riots have broken out several times.

Along with sandstorms, weather conditions in Zaatari can be extreme: blazing hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter.

Daniel Kerber says Domo's flexible design can help alleviate tensions in camps.

Shelters for example could be grouped in clusters for larger families. And for when refugees need to stay longer, the Domo can be transformed from a tent into a hut or even a house.

Following recent field tests in Denmark, South Africa and Namibia, Kerber is confident that the Domo offers a more comfortable living space than standard refugee tents.

"Basically that is what I've researched for a long time: How do people feel in different spaces? And how does the space affect your emotions?"

Germany's emergency relief agency, the THW, helped build the Zaatari camp.

Part of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan after a riot
Refugee camps can be tense places: the Zaatari camp in Jordan has seen riotsImage: Reuters

Stefan Tahn is a relief expert with the agency and believes the Domo system will change how humanitarian workers think about refugee shelters.

"The Domo can grow and adjust to changing situations and it's very important I think that people themselves can change the Domo," says Tahn.

"People themselves can decide themselves how their new homes will look like. And therefore I think Domo will have a very positive impact on the situation of refugees in camps such as Zaatari."

Morethanshelter's Domo system is now undergoing tests for certification and may enter service within a year. It's also now being considered for a range of purposes in camps such as pop-up classrooms and plant nurseries.

Together with Killian Kleinschmidt, the UNHCR's Zaatari camp manager, Kerber has established an Innovation and Planning Agency (IPA) within Zaatari - the first of its kind in a refugee camp.

Daniel Kerber hopes, just like the Domo, a more creative, holistic and collaborative approach to planning will make refugee camps more hospitable, humane and dignified living spaces for people.