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IKEA’s Innovative Solution for Refugee Shelter Can’t Keep Up with Demand

The brain behind these shelters is Industrial Designer Johan Karlsson, designing what he described as an “incremental modification to existing refugee shelters.”

How are we housing millions of Syrian refugees?

The question is easily answered. A quick Google image search reveals tent houses — hundreds of rows of these flimsy tents. IKEA may have a better solution.

The IKEA Foundation is helping Syrian refugees in their major transition by building easy-to-assemble shelters.

“I mean they’re really people running for their lives,” said British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie. “And, of course, I think they need to be not left to starve and die in various no man’s land, you know. They do need to be accommodated somehow.”

The brain behind these shelters is industrial designer Johan Karlsson. He worked with Sweden’s Refugee Services abroad in 2010 designing what he described as an “incremental modification to existing refugee shelters.” He noticed how tent shelters provided little security from the elements or any semblance of privacy. So he built something better, and the humanitarian branch of IKEA backed Karlsson’s Better Shelter project.

“The average stay in an UNHCR refugee camp is 17 years,” Karlsson told The Globe and Mail in an interview. “The tents fall apart after a few months so they needed something that was built to last. Our shelters last three years at minimum. Obviously the situation is complex and goes far beyond shelter. This is just a tiny part of humanitarian aid, but it’s an important one when it comes to allowing displaced people to live with dignity.”

The finished product stands six feet tall and comes in two sizes: 57 square feet or 188 square feet. The structures are held up by a sturdy steel frame and held together by polymer panels. The roof comes with solar panels, which can power lights or a phone charger inside the housing. The shelters even come with windows and a door that locks. And, in typical IKEA fashion, no tools are required to assemble these shelters, which takes four people around four hours.

Watch one get assembled in Greece:

The good news is camps across Europe — in Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden — are demanding these shelters. However, according to Karlsson, demand has been out-pacing their ability to supply. His foundation is only able to produce around 2,500 units a month. But with millions in Syria fleeing, it’s becoming difficult to keep up.

“What started as a humanitarian project for people far away in distant, war-torn countries is now right on our doorstep,” he explained.


Natalie has been writing professionally for about 6 years. After graduating from Ithaca College with a degree in Feature Writing, she snagged a job at where she had the opportunity to review all the latest consumer gadgets. Since then she has become a writer for hire, freelancing for various websites. In her spare time, you may find her riding her motorcycle, reading YA novels, hiking, or playing video games. Follow her on Twitter: @nat_schumaker

Photo Credit: Better Shelter


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