Between the news of meandering monkeys and massive games of hide-and-seek, it’s easy to forget the exemplary acts of do-goodery performed by the IKEA Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the world’s preferred supplier of Allen wrench-fueled existential angst.
In addition to its work with several key organizations, the IKEA Foundation has partnered with UNICEF for well over a decade and, in recent years, worked alongside the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help improve the lives of children and families uprooted by humanitarian crises and natural disasters across the globe.
For the IKEA Foundation’s latest initiative with the UN Refugee Agency, an initiative first kicked off as a pilot program back in 2013, the Swedish retailer isn’t straying too far from what it is best known: affordable, easy to transport and, theoretically, simple to put-together furniture that’s flat-packed in a big ol’ cardboard box and equipped with an illustration-aided assembly manual.
While all these IKEA hallmarks are present in the new initiative, there’s one key difference. The affordable furniture emporium will not be supplying displaced families with end tables and floor lamps but with 188-square-foot modular shelters that can be easily deployed and assembled with supplied tools in as little as four hours — no doubt faster than it takes many IKEA shoppers to drive to the nearest store, have a meatball lunch, shop for a couple hours, cry in the bathrooms for five minutes, wait in an epic check-out line, pack up the car and drive back home.
What’s more, the flat-pack refugee housing unit, dubbed the Better Shelter, is built to last [insert joke about the longevity of IKEA furniture here]. With a lifespan of three years, the weatherproof shelters are markedly more durable and long-lasting than tents and other ephemeral housing solutions, many poorly designed and hastily constructed, found in refugee camps.
Inside a Better Shelter prototype unit at Kawergosk refugee camp, Iraq. (Photo: © Better Shelter)
Features of the Better Shelter include a lockable door, mosquito netting and a solar-powered LED lamp. (Rendering:© IKEA Foundation)
One successful test run in Ethiopia and Iraq and one coveted design award later, the IKEA Foundation has received its first big order from the United Nations: 10,000 Better Shelter housing units will be produced in the coming months and distributed to refugee camps in Iraq by the UNHCR this summer. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, upwards of 2.5 million Iraqi citizens have been internally displaced in just the last year.
The order was announced late last week at the Dubai International Humanitarian Aid & Development Conference & Exhibition.
“Putting refugee families and their needs at the heart of this project is a great example of how democratic design can be used for humanitarian value,” remarked Jonathan Spampinato, Head of Strategic Planning and Communications for the IKEA Foundation, following the announcement. “We are incredibly proud that the Better Shelter is now available, so refugee families and children can have a safer place to call home.”
Since this is IKEA that we’re dealing with, the actual entity responsible for the shelters is just a wee bit complicated to explain. While designed and developed in Sweden, the units are not manufactured by IKEA but by a standalone Stockholm-based social enterprise called Better Shelter. As the Better Shelter website explains: “Every dollar we generate in profit is reinvested within our company or distributed to our philanthropic owner, the Housing for All Foundation. The Housing For All Foundation was established by the IKEA Foundation, which, alongside the UNHCR, serves as a project partner.
While very much temporary, the shed-esque Better Shelter, as mentioned, is a departure from the norm in that it’s designed to stand stronger — and longer — than standard refugee housing units.
Easy to disassemble and relocate if need be, the unit — yes, its components are indeed packed-flat in two cardboard boxes — comes complete with several key design features including a lockable door for security and privacy, two things that are hard to come by in overcrowded refugee camps. In addition to lightweight insulated polymer panel walls that help to keep the cold out at night, windows and ventilation openings allows fresh air to circulate through the shelter’s interior when things take a turn for the stuffy. Last but not least, a small rooftop PV panel generates enough juice to power a built-in LED ceiling lamp for a few hours or charge a cellphone.
Overall, each steel-framed unit can accommodate a family of five. The prototype units deployed in 2013 were tweaked and improved based on feedback provided by 40 different Iraqi and Somali families, the latter living in refugee camps in Ethiopia.
Assembling a Better Shelter prototype unit at Hilawyen refugee camp, Doll Ado, Ethiopia. (Photo: © R. Cox)
Better Shelter prototype units during an 18-month test run at Kobe refugee camp in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia. (Photo: © IKEA Foundation)
"Better Shelter will ship 10,000 units to UNHCR in 2015 for use by UNHCR operations globally — and that is just the beginning. We will continue to develop the Better Shelter and also provide other solutions to benefit the many displaced people. Innovation is our strongest driving force,” notes Johan Karlsson of Better Shelter in a news release.
As Better Shelter’s good work with the UN kicks off, do keep in mind the IKEA Foundation’s other humanitarian initiatives the next time you visit an IKEA store. Often, the retailer runs special promotions that allow shoppers to help make a difference through the purchase of small items such as stuffed animals, LED bulbs and boxed holiday greeting cards.
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Inset image of Better Shelter prototype unit in Iraq: © Better Shelter