Not designing an innovative transitional shelter

I also get lots of emails about how to design the most efficient, cheap, lightweight, quick, easy to use post-disaster shelter. In many situations, this is probably not the technical problem that most needs attention: instead it would be much more interesting to have engineers think about the complex and risky decisions concerning:

  • the housing stock that remains,
  • supporting people to rent (AirBnB and the Government of Japan have been clever about this),
  • repairing housing,
  • shoring up slopes and restoring communal infrastructure.

If you still think transitional shelter gets a lot of airtime and must therefore be a technical problem worth solving. Think about this...

The term was intended to describe the transition process that people go through after a disaster: if you’ve lost your home and you flee to another area or you are displaced or you seek temporary evacuation in a centre or you stay with a host family, you’re in a state of transition between finding some suitable alternative accommodation and being able to return and rebuild or repair or resettle somewhere where it’s going to be easier for you.

So, transition is a process (rather than a defined period of time) and is about the transition of different groups of people (not just the transition or upgrading of a shelter). This helps to frame the post-disaster shelter challenges for a government as strategic questions rather than purely technical problems because you have to start looking at:

  • the different situations that different population groups find themselves in,
  • how many people are in each of those different situations,
  • who might be particularly vulnerable in those groups and then
  • what your menu of options might be - high level, flexible and equitable - to meet the needs of those people. a broad pallet of things you can do (or support) at a high level and how those play out at a slightly more detailed level of granularity.

Transitional shelter in disaster response is contested partly because there is a lot of confusion around the term. A key confusion (and barrier to making useful comparisons) is thinking of transitional shelter as only the pre-fabricated housing or the kit, this is just one component and disaster responses where pre-fabricated housing has dominated have been criticised because:

  • they’re limited in scale because they are expensive and you can’t reach that many people,
  • they are limited in scope because only people with a place to put such a thing can receive one,
  • they don’t influence the underlying culture of building and safer building
  • they don’t build capacity for people to recover for themselves because they are imported,
  • they don’t necessarily stimulate local economic recovery

This is the list that needs attention. IMHO.