Small sustainable homes

Goodbye flimsy tents and hello solar-powered modular shelters. The Ikea Foundation, the Refugee Housing Unit and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have recently unveiled a new type of housing that refugees and internally displaced people around the world can call home. 

Instead of sleeping in canvas tents typically issued by the United Nations and which only last for six months depending on weather conditions, this marginalised sector will soon have a dignified and secure housing alternative. 

Refugees are classified by the UN agency as people fleeing due to persecution and fear of violence, conflict, natural disaster, among other reasons, and they live in camps for over 12 years on the average.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs), on the other hand, are those who have not crossed international borders to find sanctuary but have remained within their home countries. They are equally vulnerable and also take years to return to their places of origin, if at all. 

There are around 44 million refugees and IDPs around the globe. According to the UNHCR, a majority of the 14.9 million people who became internally displaced in 2011 were in Asia, and all because of natural disasters. By way of comparison, in that same year, Tokyo’s population was around 13.2 million. 

But unlike the well-off megacity, the IDPs and refugees’ need is simply to have a roof over their heads during this time of personal upheaval, says Olivier Delarue, head of the UNHCR Innovation initiative, which the Ikea Foundation helped to establish. 

This new housing, designed by Swedish designers of the emergency shelter group Refugee Housing Unit (RHU), will provide just that starting, with the Somali refugees in Ethiopia. The housing is still in the beta testing stage and by trying it out in the field, the UNHCR Innovation team said, partner organisations will be able to adjust and rethink the model to better suit the refugees’ needs. 

Currently, the housing unit is a modular shelter composed of four parts: the RHU frame, panels, PV system and shade net. The size is 17.5 square metres or about double the area of a traditional refugee tent, and can comfortably fit a family of five.

Like an Ikea product, the housing unit is well designed, functional, easy to transport and assemble and cost-effective. 

The RHU frame is a self-supported steel skeleton to which the lightweight yet strong plastic wall and ceiling panels will be attached. It is a durable structure that is said to last up to three years. As a result, there is less energy used to make and replace the short-lived tents every so often. Also, the lightweight components make it more economically and environmentally efficient to ship the units to different locations worldwide. 

Now aside from the sturdier shelter, refugees and IDPs will also benefit from the photovoltaic system that can be integrated into the panels or the shade net. The PV system, which is comprised of a solar panel and portable LED with battery and USB power output, gives them much needed electricity and light, saving them from spending their meagre incomes on candles or kerosene. 

As for the unusual USB port feature, this is intended for charging mobile phones – a staple even in refugee or relocation camps. 

The last component, the shade net, is an external screen that provides 70 per cent solar reflection and cooling during the day and helps lessen radiated heat loss at night or in cold climates. 

Currently, the new shelters cost $10,000 to produce but the intent is to bring the cost down to less than 10 per cent of the value when the final design of the houses goes into mass production. This is the same process Ikea does to drive down its product prices. 

“Just as Ikea looks for innovative ways to create a better everyday home life for many people, the Ikea Foundation is looking for ways to create a better everyday life for poor families who have lost their homes and everything familiar to them,” said Per Heggenes, Ikea Foundation chief executive officer.

For Johan Karlsson, RHU project manager, the outcome of the project so far is due to the success of the public-private partnership. He said, “We share a genuine interest and understanding of innovation, and we all bring unique resources and skills to the project. The Ikea Foundation provides funding and management support, UNHCR brings the know-how and field experience, while we and our private and academic partners carry out the hands-on development of the product.” 

It is a sentiment shared by Delarue as well. “Companies have never before helped improve refugee shelters the way Ikea Foundation has. By introducing us to the Refugee Housing Unit, the Foundation enabled two organisations to share each other’s expertise and experience to create a better shelter, which the UNHCR is now testing in the field.” 

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In an effort to improve the availability of affordable housing, a handful of design-build firms (mostly concentrated in California) are getting creative. In exchange for a share of a homeowner’s rental income, a small group of five firms will actually construct an ADU in your backyard for free. The concept is a triple win: Economical housing is created, helping to ease the housing crisis in specific U.S. cities, while homeowners and designers put extra income in their pockets. If you have unused yard space and are simultaneously motivated by altruism and prudence, these five firms may be the right partners for you. 

1. Rent the Backyard

This one-bedroom NODE prefab, from Rent the Backyard, produces all of its own energy—with enough left over to power the neighboring house.

This one-bedroom NODE prefab, from Rent the Backyard, produces all of its own energy—with enough left over to power the neighboring house.

Bay Area start-up Rent the Backyard is making new room in dense cities by collaborating with homeowners who’ve got a little extra acreage. The company will install a prefab studio apartment on unused land behind your home, handle all the permitting required to do so, find a worthy tenant to rent the unit, and pay you 50% of the profits for providing the space—all for zero up-front costs. They’re leveraging companies like NODE, who make sustainable, carbon-neutral homes that can be installed in just a few days. Utilities will hook up to the property’s principal dwelling, and they’ll be metered and reimbursed. Participants can expect to add roughly $10k to their annual income (dependent on the going rate for a studio apartment in your city), and cities will get new affordable housing in previously unused space.  

2. OBY Cooperative

OBY Cooperative’s preliminary concept is a 576-square-foot ADU with two bedrooms, a bathroom/laundry room, a kitchen, and an open living/dining area. 

OBY Cooperative’s preliminary concept is a 576-square-foot ADU with two bedrooms, a bathroom/laundry room, a kitchen, and an open living/dining area.

OBY Cooperative is a startup that’s offering turnkey, prefab ADUs to homeowners in California’s East Bay. The company takes on the cost and hassle of building an ADU, and homeowners with land to spare can collect upwards of $500 each month in rent, or $6,000 yearly, without the hassle of tenant management, development headaches, or any up-front costs. As more ADUs are built, those sidelined by the housing crisis would find it easier to secure a rental and to keep one.

3. Backyard Tiny House

Backyard Tiny House's factory-assembled mobile tiny homes on wheels offer almost 250 square feet of living space.

Backyard Tiny House’s factory-assembled mobile tiny homes on wheels offer almost 250 square feet of living space.

It takes Backyard Tiny House, a Portland, Oregon, company, about two weeks and $50,000 to place a factory-assembled mobile tiny home in a local homeowner’s unused yard or driveway. The tiny homes feature approximately 250 square feet of living space, a sleeping loft, and a composting toilet. The company prescreens tenants and takes $750 of the $1,000 monthly rent; the homeowner receives $250.   


ESCAPE tiny houses are listed as rental properties through Airbnb or similar platforms.

ESCAPE tiny houses are listed as rental properties through Airbnb or similar platforms.

ESCAPE distributes free rental units or tiny homes to select homeowners or “partners” across the United States that are within 100 miles of a top metro area or high-traffic destination. In return, participating homeowners receive 40% of the collected rent generated by Airbnb or the equivalent. The homeowner is expected to pay a refundable security deposit of $1,000-$2,000, depending on which unit ESCAPE deems best for the site. The unit can be purchased by the homeowner for a predetermined price at any time during the agreement with 90 days prior notice.

5. United Dwelling

United Dwelling's free ADUs feature a full kitchen, laundry, and outdoor space.

United Dwelling’s free ADUs feature a full kitchen, laundry, and outdoor space.

Culver City, California-based startup United Dwelling wants to help solve the housing problem in Los Angeles by placing affordable housing units in the backyards of willing homeowners, who bare none of the cost but receive a portion of the rent. The homes feature a full kitchen, laundry and outdoor space. The company insures the home, vets the tenants and manages the rental, which is priced at 30% or less of a given area’s median income.

Related Reading: Kodasema Launches Prefab Tiny Homes in the U.S. Starting at $95K 

Coming up next in #TourismGeographies Podcast, Episode 14.Dr. Ethan BottoneDepartment of Humanities and Social Sciences, Northwest Missouri State University, Maryville, MO, USAIn this episode, Ethan draws attention to his recently published paper, ‘Your home—away from home’: Tourist homes and hospitality as resistance’. 📢 An exploration of tourist homes listed in the Green Book, a Black American-centric travel guide published during the Jim Crow Era, reveals that tourist homes not only lodged travelers overnight, but also significantly contributed to forms of mobile resistance against white supremacy. One of Ethan’s key propositions is that:📢 “tourist homes facilitated resistance through hospitality for a greater number of Black travelers in the Jim Crow era as a result of the environments they offered, their inexpensiveness, and their abundance, particularly in smaller cities not serviced by hotels. Consequently, tourist homes, their proprietors, and the guests who patronized them comprised a significant role in the production of ‘Black counterpublic spaces’ of hospitality. Specifically, through the creation of home-like atmospheres, tourist home operators constructed safe and intimate spaces of belonging that gave Black travelers the confidence to move within a society that valued them as unwelcome ‘others’.”Ethan Bottone is currently an Assistant Professor of Geography at Northwest Missouri State University, where his work explored critical aspects of tourism, mobility, and race. He received his PhD from the University of Tennessee in May 2020, where his dissertation research investigated landscapes and mobility networks of the Green Book, a Jim Crow-era travel guide developed and used by black travelers. He is particularly interested in “tourist homes,” private homes and apartments rented to travelers, that were listed within the Green Book, as these spaces represented a very personal form of resistant hospitality to the pervasive injustices of institutional white supremacy.The full paper can be found here: Ethan Bottone (2022) ‘Your home—away from home’: Tourist homes and hospitality as resistance, Tourism Geographies, it where you get your podcasts or here: