Syrian refugees sit outside their tents at a camp in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. AP Photo / Bilal Hussein

Egyptian researchers have designed a shelter for Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees based on the Bedouin tent.

Architects like Shigeru Ban and companies like IKEA have tried their hand—often admirably—at designing better housing for refugees living in camps. With the refugee situation in the Middle East exploding—Syrian refugees alone number more than 4.5 million in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq—the need for effective and inexpensive temporary shelter has never been more urgent. Egyptian architect and professor Marwa Dabaieh and her colleague, Ahmad Borham, have come up with a design tailored for the region—one that is low-cost, biodegradable, and culturally sensitive.

Dabaieh and Borham propose drawing on the nomadic architecture of the Middle East, namely Bedouin tents. A main reason for employing this type of shelter is the tents’ adaptability to the region’s climate, which can seesaw between extreme heat and extreme cold.

Another reason is the tents’ ability to be clustered in such a way that residents have access to both public and more private spaces. The addition of more privacy to refugee camps is key for Muslim culture, which values spaces for women away from men who are not family members. “The refugees are also more familiar with the tent structure and design,” Dabaieh tells CityLab, “so it suits the Middle East context.”

The winter of 2015 in the Middle East was particularly cold, and Syrian refugees—especially the elderly and children—suffered greatly, with some dying from the elements. The deaths were in part caused by flimsy shelters that did not provide enough protection from the chill and snow. Hani, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, told Vice News at the time, “People are scared if it keeps snowing because the tents won't hold up against [the snow’s] weight.”

Bedouin tents can handle this problem. Because they are made of flexible wool, their roofs can be stretched at an angle so that rain and snow slide off. The ability to stretch the roof is also a way to address interior heat or cold; in the summer, the roof can be raised to keep the tent cooler—and vice-versa in the winter. Other tactics, like an air gap between the two wool layers of the roof, may be widened in summer and narrowed in winter for climate control. And the tents, because they are easily set up or taken down, can be moved seasonally so that they are oriented toward the sun in winter and away from the sun in summer.

(Marwa Dabaieh)

Dabaieh and Borham suggest a particular design for the tents’ placement. They begin with a classic grid with paths crisscrossing each other horizontally and vertically, but they cluster the tents in certain areas to create large public spaces as well as smaller, more private spaces. The large spaces are earmarked for toilets and showers, markets, and gatherings. The smaller spaces are for entertaining guests, household activities, and children’s play.

The clusters, the designers note, would also help with the camp’s resistance to wind. “The irregular shapes of the street network will act as windbreaks,” writes Dabaieh for the site EcoMENA, “helping to reduce wind speed and velocity [in winter].” In the heat, shady spaces created by the clusters would provide relief from the sun.

(Ahmad Borham)

The designers are clear that the tents are not meant to be permanent. Just as Bedouins must replace their tents every five to six years, so must refugees. It’s “an adequate time for a temporary shelter,” Dabaieh writes. “Psychologically,” she says, “the refugees should not have the impression that their situation is permanent.” Dabaieh is currently testing prototypes of the tents—such as placing them in a wind tunnel—to ensure the design’s feasibility.

Ideally, such a design—though an improvement for Middle Eastern refugees—wouldn’t need to be used for as long as the tent’s usual lifespan. But with the Syrian and other regional conflicts continuing to rage and people fleeing en masse for their lives, the need for better-designed refugee shelters in the Middle East looks to be a long-term one. Designs like that of Dabaieh and Borham could help in the interim.

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