An image of the IKEA refugee shelters in use (image courtesy Better Shelter)

A flat-packed refugee shelter developed by the Ikea Foundation and the United Nations Refugee Agency has won the annual Beazley Design of the Year award, which partners with London’s Design Museum to highlight projects that celebrate “design that promotes or delivers change, enables access, extends design practice or captures the spirit of the year.”

Better Shelter, which offers temporary but sustainable housing that may fit a family of up to five, beat contenders that included a robotic surgeon, a smart bicycle helmet, and David Bowie’s Blackstar album cover, exemplifying the severity of our present-day humanitarian crisis that demands immediate solutions.

(image courtesy IKEA)

Made of recyclable polyolefin panels sturdied by galvanized steel, the 188-square-foot house can be easily packed up and swiftly dispatched in the event of an emergency. Lightweight, it provides refugees with a durable shelter safe from both intruders and rain, snow, scorching suns, and strong winds. Its modular design allows residents to configure its components to suit both personal needs and location, making it adaptable for many areas around the world. Like most IKEA products, Better Shelter requires only assembly by hand, with no additional tools necessary, allowing a team of four to build — or disassemble — the structure in four to eight hours. The shelter is expected to be durable for up to three years, and although it may not be a true home, it is designed to provide a cost-effective, dignified alternative that’s as close to one as possible.

Last year, IKEA partnered with the United Nation’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to help distribute an initial 30,000 shelters. Today, thousands of Better Shelters are in use in countries from Ethiopia to Iraq and Nepal; what initially began as the brainchild of a small Swedish foundation run by industrial designer Johan Karlsson has developed into a worldwide solution — one that’s temporary but fuels thinking about the potential of emergency shelters.

Better Shelter, which appeared in the Museum of Modern Art’s recent exhibition Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter, won the Beazley Award’s Architecture category, where it was the only project intended specifically to accommodate refugees. Other nominees, selected by a panel of international designers and curators included a prototype for sustainable housing by Tatiana Bilbao Estudio; MAD Architects’ Harbin Opera House in China; Herzog & de Meuron’s vision of the New Tate Modern; and OMA’s Fondazione Prada. These, along with nominees in other categories, are all currently on view at the Design Museum’s annual Beazley Designs of the Year exhibition. While all these projects aim to improve how we live, Better Shelter stands out from many of its companions for its goal to one day be obsolete.

“Winning this prize encourages us to work even harder and to continue developing our product until the day when it is no longer needed,” the social enterprise said in a statement. “With and for refugees.”

OpenSurgery, developed as a graduation project at the Design Interactions department of the Royal College of Art, won the Digital category (photo by Juuke Schoorl)

Space cup, a coffee used by astronauts, was awarded the Beazley Product Design of the Year (photo courtesy ESA/NASA)

The interior of MAD Architect’s envisioned Harbin Opera House in China, a nominee in the Architecture category (photo courtesy Hufton + Crow)

Architects Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen’s Nida house in Navidad, Chile, a nominee in the Architecture category (photo by Pezo von Ellrichshausen)

Beazley Designs of the Year continues at the Design Museum (224-238 Kensington High St, London, United Kingdom) through February 19.

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...