Want to design humanitarian shelter? Better know what you’re talking about.

Humanitarian architecture, transitional shelter, temporary shelter, emergency shelter, settlements, humanitarian engineering, humanitarian response, disaster, shelter – all of these terms sound like the same thing, right? 

Yes and no. They are about housing people in need of shelter because their communities have been devastated by an environmental disaster or by persecution. But each term has a specific meaning depending on the context it is used in, and some humanitarian organisations use the same terms differently. ‘Shelter’ terminology is full of inconsistencies and contradictions.

Architects and urban designers often want to contribute their expertise to shelter projects, but lack of knowledge of the meaning and implications of these terms is probably one of the reasons why well-meaning built environment professionals are more likely to be seen as a hindrance than a help in humanitarian emergency and rebuilding situations.  

Dr Liz Brogden and I have published a new framework of terms that aims to disentangle the terminology of humanitarian shelter for new entrants to the field.

We identified terms in use for humanitarian shelter by analysing 65 documents from 34 members of the Global Shelter Cluster. This process brought up 347 shelter terms. The resulting framework contains eight main categories, including 25 subcategories of shelter strategies. Our research also reveals that shelter terms do not only apply to material support but often service or support-based assistance. 

We hope this research will assist built environment professionals to gain an insight into the specialist and ever-more urgent field of humanitarian shelter, in order to be better equipped to engage. For the pre-publication version, click Humanitarian Shelter Framework . It is available as a chapter in a new book Enhancing Disaster Preparedness: From Humanitarian Architecture to Community Resilience published by Elsevier.

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