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5 Alternative Materials for Building Emergency Shelters

Earthquakes, pandemics, conflicts, and environmental disasters are some of the events that have challenged architects, planners, designers, and engineers. The goal is to find ways of creating structures and infrastructure more quickly, easily, efficiently, suiting both the circumstances and the location in which they will be implemented. When searching for materials that meet the requirements for each situation, those considered "alternative" or unusual - at least in the context of emergency shelters - can offer great opportunities for experimentation and applicability for emergency structures. Containers and tensioned fabrics always come to mind when discussing temporary constructions. However, there are other highly available materials with good mechanical properties that can achieve relief purposes.

Japanese Architect Shigeru Ban has engaged in projects for emergency shelters in various locations around the world. He has been exploring the use of cardboard as a construction material since 1986 when he began testing temporary and semi-permanent structures with cardboard tubes. Since then, his research has led him to design pavilions, schools, emergency shelters, and other structures made from this material. The architect carried out laboratory performance tests and proved that cardboard tubes can withstand 10 megapascals (MPa) when subjected to compression, and 15 MPa when subjected to bending.

Cardboard, as well as other alternative materials, reveal several possibilities beyond those most commonly seen in the construction of emergency temporary structures, such as tents made of steel-frame covered with canvas. Indeed, the quick manufacturing and installation of prefabricated tents and canopies are the main factors leading to the spread of these products as solutions for emergency shelters. However, experimentation with new materials has shown other options that can offer the same benefits, or even more, reducing costs while still meeting sustainability standards. Here are five alternative materials that are being used in emergency shelter construction in recent years.


Cardboard tubes provide, through joining systems, fast assembly and disassembly of partition units in gymnasiums or even freestanding structures, requiring no skilled work, which is a key factor in emergencies. Aside from the structures designed by Shigeru Ban mentioned above, cardboard can play an important role in furniture design, such as beds, seats, and storage facilities, that can be delivered to the premises in pre-cut sheets and with instructions for folding and assembling.


Rubber can be recycled for different purposes and has been used in construction to make bricks, among other things. Unlike conventional bricks, those recycled from rubber provide quick assembly and immediate occupancy. Their low density is the main asset, which results in very light-weight blocks. Shelters built with this technique can also remain during post-emergency periods, due to the materials' high strength when compared to waterproof fabrics, which are more commonly used for emergency tent construction.


Bamboo is a very versatile material and extremely resistant to compression and bending. Another great asset is its availability in most parts of the world (especially in hot climates) and its rapid growth. Therefore, bamboo is ideal for temporary facilities, as structural frames, but also for walls and roofing. When building emergency shelters, it offers the added benefits of fast assembly and the possibility of being kept in place for permanent housing. However, it is important that, for bamboo to be considered a building material with proper durability and outstanding mechanical characteristics, a chemical treatment is required before its use in construction, to avoid rotting and insect infestation. Another major concern of bamboo construction is that the components must be very well protected from sunshine and rain.

3D printed recycled materials

Despite its fairly high cost, 3D printing has spread over the years and has proven to be a possibility for emergency shelter construction. The Dutch company DUS Architects, for example, has developed a fully mobile 3D printer ("KamerMaker") that is capable of printing entire spaces from recycled materials. However, 3D printers can be particularly valuable in an emergency when printing small connecting parts. Designing joints to improve installation and allow pieces of different materials to be joined together can be a great advantage when it comes to assembly.


Crates filled with sandbags to provide greater weight, used in many of the emergency shelters designed by Shigeru Ban, can serve as a shallow foundation for the building structure. Whenever necessary, the crates can be used to keep other construction materials protected from the weather and safe from getting wet. Using crates makes more sense if they have already been used to deliver supplies to the site. In situations like this, all the resources must be thought out during the entire process, from arrival at the site to its final destination.

Temporary solutions and emergency architecture become extremely important in times of great sadness and loss. The combination of quick and easy interventions, which can respond to the contingencies and demands of the affected population, must be approached very seriously, since they will be assisting people in a very fragile situation, either due to illness or homelessness. Building careful and serious solutions and investing in extensive research of new materials and alternatives, including the use of local resources, is very important, and architects must be fully engaged.


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