Natural disasters and wars are two main reasons that force populations to leave their homes, which consequently push for an urgent need to provide temporary shelters or settlements as a disaster management plan. For many years, governments and aid agencies have worked on offering emergency relief camps. Solutions have ranged from short term to long-term shelters. Tents are the most common shelter structure used. However, studies show that the majority of current tent shelters do not satisfy comfort conditions for occupants and hardly satisfy privacy, hygiene and other social needs. They are also expensive to fabricate and deteriorate quickly.
Several countries in the Middle East have experienced a lot of the aforementioned challenges in accommodating Syrian refugees since the uprising began in March of 2011. Many quick shelter camps have been erected to safeguard thousands of refugees in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Observing shelters in these three different contexts showed similar problems, especially with social inconvenience and thermo-hygrometric comfort conditions. Another major issue is energy support. As the Arab world has suffered recently from energy poverty, fuel intake in refugee camps appeared not only to be a problem in terms of availability and cost but a problem of logistics as well.
The rapid increase of death rates and conflicts between occupants inside camps is an alarm that signals the urgency to find a solution. In our study, we have tried to address problems from an urban and architectural perspective and to offer an understanding of the correlation between socio-cultural aspects and energy efficiency in emergency shelters.
Built on the study of traditional Bedouin tents in the Middle East region, the proposal explored how to achieve both indoor and outdoor comfort together with a decent private social life for refugees. The results revealed that we can derive practical lessons for contemporary emergency shelters from understanding the thermal performance as well as the social implications of Bedouin tents.
Bedouin tent as an alternative
The Bedouin tent relies on a tensile lightweight and transportable method of construction. The Bedouins call it (beit sha’r) as the tent cloth is woven from goat hair or a mixture of sheep wool and camel hair. The use of a flexible membrane as a skin for a habitable space distinguishes it from the rest of the methods of construction. From our site investigation, we deduced that in the Bedouin culture, the tent is constructed in relation to the natural topography and the sun. Bedouin families pack up their tents and move towards the sun in autumn and winter and then away from it in summer. The orientation of the tent changes during summer and winter as well.
An adaptive refugee camp proposal
Through defining local Bedouin inhabitants’ social and thermal comfort adaptation measures inside and outside their tents and adaptation to the extreme weather conditions in summer and winter, we tried to draw applicable, hands-on, and low-tech solutions for current low-cost temporary shelters.
From our site investigations, we realised that intervention in refugee camps walks the line between ‘permanentization’ of the camps and the improvement of living conditions while maintaining the temporality of these settlements. The lifespan of Bedouin tent cloth is usually from five to six years which is an adequate time for a temporary shelter.
On the social and humanitarian level, the internal organization of the tent should always reflect the social needs of its occupants. Tents do not have clear boundaries between the inside and the outside. The interior of the tent can be extended using internal mats to create a porch (fina’). The space outside the tent should occupy practical functions. Some of these functions are more related to women, e.g., where they gather for cleaning, washing or cooking, while other intermediate zones should accommodate shared facilities like toilets and showers, while still assuring privacy in both cases.
The plot for setting up a camp is proposed as a division into a basic grid of approximately 6 x 3 meters to be assigned to refugee families according to the number of persons in each family. A preliminary network of passages and corridors is set between the basic parcels. Each family gets a sheet of wool fabric and a set of poles to divide up the internal space of the tent according to their needs. The straight corridors and passages between the tents create in-between spaces that differ in size, providing a greater potential for a variation in social activities such as receiving guests while still preserving privacy.
The environmental aspects of the new grid proposal offer intermediate spaces that regulate the outdoor temperature between tents. The shaded zones can serve as fields, storing cool air, while the unshaded zones serve as containers for hot air. The difference in air pressure in both zones enhances air circulation in-between the tents, offering cold air breezes. In winter, all the open spaces will be unshaded and directly exposed to the sun, and the irregular shapes of the street network will act as windbreaks, helping to reduce wind speed and velocity.
For the tent material, we propose using natural wool because of its thermal properties and durability. The roof will be a double skin, making use of the tensile flexible properties of the wool allowing for stretching this double skin structure. In summer, an air gap is created between the two layers to allow for air movement and to reduce heat gain while in winter the two layers create a thick thermal insulation. The internal height of the tent in summertime is higher to allow for hot air with a lower density to escape from the top opening of the tent. In winter, the height is reduced to keep the internal heat gain with closed sides to assure air tightness and reduce infiltration. In addition, the top surface can be stretched in an inclined form in winter for rain and snowfall.
This study concludes that the Bedouin tent still remains a resilient tensile structure with several environmental potentials that can be quickly erected or dismantled. We hope this study can be developed further as tested prototypes for adaptive solutions to climate challenges while providing decent shelters for poor urban refugees.
Authors: Marwa Dabaieh and Ahmad Borham
Marwa Dabaieh is an architect and BioGeometry® practitioner. She had several publications and lectures in the fields of energy efficient buildings, passive design, low carbon communities, sustainable conservation, vernacular architecture and BioGeometry®. She mainly applies transdisciplinary approaches in her research work through participatory action research methods. She received the Swedish Elna Bengtssons foundation prize for scientific research in 2012 for her PhD project. Currently Marwa is a post-doc researcher at Lund University in Sweden. Her current research focus is vernacular passive low-tech methods and their adaptation for contemporary energy efficient and affordable carbon neutral building practice.
Ahmad Borham is an independent urban researcher, practicing design architect and teaching in the Arab Academy for Science and Technology as well as the American University in Cairo. He holds a Masters of Science with a thesis is titled Resilient Rules: Culture and Computation in Traditional Built Environments. He is co-founder of Cairo from Below and Madd initiatives which share the aim to encourage inclusive urbanization in Cairo. He also maintains the Drawing Parallels blog where he draws comparisons between urban conditions in Cairo and other cities in search for emergent patterns.