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Designing better shelters to improve the lives of refugees

Through a global study, our researchers are designing shelters that enhance the physical and mental health of those living in refugee camps.

‘The extreme climates experienced by those living in refugee camps inspired me to propose this project which will truly push the boundaries of my research into low-energy building design.’
Professor David Coley Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering

The Healthy Housing for Displaced People1 project is playing a crucial role in enhancing air quality and social conditions of displaced people in camps across Ethiopia, Turkey, Nepal, Bangladesh, Jordan, and Peru. Our researchers are creating a new science of shelter design that puts the wellbeing, health, and thermal comfort of shelter occupants at the centre of the design process.

The growing displacement crisis

The world is currently witnessing the highest ever levels of human displacement. With the climate crisis predicted to displace 1.2bn people by 2050, the United Nations (UN) and other agencies are under pressure to deploy a new generation of housing for refugees and internally displaced people across the world.

Originally seen as a short-term solution, many camps now exist for decades, with the average residency time in a shelter of around 20 years. More than 20,000 displaced people die prematurely each year because of poor-quality air inside small over-populated shelters. It is critical that new shelters are designed with the long-term environmental, physical, and socio-cultural needs of the occupants to make camps healthier.

The impact of humanitarian engineering

The health of shelter occupants can be seriously undermined by bad design. Poor insulation will fail to mediate extreme temperatures and a design that doesn't meet the basic needs for privacy and security can harm psycho-social wellbeing.

Led by Professor David Coley, the pioneering project at Bath is the first study of its kind to capture feedback from camp occupants at every stage of the design cycle. It identifies the most effective tools to engage participants and communicate designs, including size and materials.

The project team captured the views of over 160 refugees on low-energy shelter designs, which were illustrated through physical models, sketching, architectural drawings, and virtual reality.

'Our findings show that simple engineering principles and the use of different materials can inform shelter design to ensure they naturally stay warm in winter and cool in summer and suit the needs of displaced people from specific places.' — Professor David Coley

Making refugee camps healthier

The project team of 14 men stand in front of a shelter in a camp in Jordan.
The Project build team at the Azraq camp in Jordan.

During the three-year project, our researchers designed shelter prototypes to improve thermal conditions at both the University of Bath’s Building Research Park in Wroughton, and UNHCR camp in Azraq, Jordan.

They used computer modelling to predict and evaluate the potential performance of the new designs and materials in the prototypes. They then applied novel combinations of conventional and non-conventional materials to improve conditions within shelters to ensure the structures naturally stayed warm in winter and cool in summer.

The team transported their best designs to Jordan to determine construction times and conduct thermal experiments in the country. This invaluable fieldwork gave the team first-hand insight from refugee inhabitants and aid agencies including UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).

‘It would be too simple to only focus on the physical design of shelters. This research embraces cultural use of space within dwellings, coupled with engineering insights to make the difference that only holistic understanding can achieve.’
Professor Tim Ibell Dean for the Faculty of Engineering & Design

Centre for Energy and the Design of Environments

Find out more about our research
  1. Healthy Housing for Displaced People is a collaborative project between the Departments of Architecture & Civil Engineering, and Social and Policy Sciences. The Princess Sumaya University of Technology (PSUT) in Amman, Jordan collaborated with Bath on the pilot project. The project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)