The Role of Humanitarian Architecture in Shaping and Assisting Refugees and Displaced Populations

Hucen Sleiman, Research Affiliate, Institute for Migration Studies


Humanitarian design is described as the process of designing products, systems, or services for a population affected by human-made and/or natural disasters. Providing the affected population with adequate shelter serves as the foundation of humanitarian design. This is where the humanitarian field intersects with the architecture field. The idea of shelter is a fundamental architectural concept. Still, before the tsunami that happened in the Indian Ocean in 2004, “architects had hardly been engaged in the task of post-disaster aid and design”. Today, humanitarian architecture is an emerging field, defined by Charlesworth as recruiting design skills, mainly after a crisis such as war, social conflict and/or disaster, to assist vulnerable communities such as refugees and displaced populations. Architects are now seen as a central component employed in disaster relief practices.

Architectural Expertise in Post-Conflict Interventions

Yet, the majority of governments and NGOs in post-conflict intervention “neither attract nor seek architectural expertise”. Davis returned this cause for the fact that the skill set of architects does not match what the NGOs and governments are looking for. Aquilino warns that this leaves the communities more vulnerable than before the disaster and thus long-term recovery will not be attained. The failure to find a common ground for both approaches exposes the affected communities to threats to their dignity, physically and psychologically. Shedding the light on the long-overlooked mutual language between architects and humanitarian methodologies in assessing humanitarian design is now essential more than ever; adding to this, looking to understand the underlying logic behind this opposition i.e., highlighting the stereotypes built of each other.

For instance, the humanitarians’ approach is seen as too pragmatic based on quantitative methodologies (cautious calculation of time, cost and lives saved) oriented towards Universalist solutions, while architects are seen as utopian dreamers, out of touch with reality, based on qualitative methodologies, focusing on their “genius-loci” concept, solidity, utility and aesthetics. Both have been “more irrelevant to the problem of shelter and displacement than they would care to admit”. In the last two decades, up until this present date, these stereotypes and tensions are real obstacles to the advancement of the humanitarian design field, putting displaced people in unfavorable situations.

Bridging the Humanitarian-Architectural Divide

Taking into account the perseverance of this divide between humanitarians’ and architects’ methodologies, which is not considered a veritable animosity but a misunderstanding, what kind of approach must be adopted to implement some mediations between these two worlds of knowledge? Both fields are extremely relevant to the provision of shelters to displaced people, in different ways and circumstances, the question is how to bring these two together. Juxtaposing the two fields allows us to explore their advantages and facilitate the overcome of their limitations. These two professions have a gigantic contribution to addressing the problem of shelter design and criteria. The disagreement on what constitutes a “good” shelter design is only exacerbating the already disadvantaged situation of the displaced people, providing them half solutions to their housing problems. The importance to bridge the divide is as important, if not more, to the process of saving lives in a disaster or war situation.   

Juxtaposing these two worlds of knowledge, as well as methodological approaches, of shelter provision for displaced people helps to expose the limited amount of research done to address the divergence between the two points of view.

Humanitarian-Architect Dialogue

The basic essential for shelter is undeniable. This need is acknowledged by the 25th article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the UN, stating that “Everyone has the right to a standard of adequate living […] including food, clothing, housing […]”.  Later, the sphere project developed this declaration into the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response. This charter includes guidelines of minimum indicators, standards and key actions related to the shelter and settlement provision: “the right to life and dignity, the right to protection and security and the right to receive humanitarian assistance on the basis of need”.

Although according to Corsellis approximately 50% of funding in humanitarian intervention is allocated to shelter provision, the major effort of shelter reconstruction after a disaster is undertaken by local communities without assistance. Only recently, the UN and other international aid organizations (UNHCR and IFRC for example) started to create groups with a “shelter-specific focus”, emphasizing the importance of meeting qualitative (not only quantitative) needs. However, the prevailing approach is still one that focuses on delivering the minimum standards of human rights (NRC, 2010 and UNHCR, 2016), which still exceeds the capacity of the global response.

This deficit is not merely financial but “knowledge-based”. This lack of expertise in the shelter field is acknowledged by many scholars, such as Saunders who highlights the “limited involvement within the relief sector of professionals with backgrounds and expertise in planning, design, planning and construction”. Corsellis acknowledges that 85% of organizations’ staff have no minimal technical training. This need for technical competencies in key fields such as planning and architecture is reinforced by an update to the 1982 Shelter after Disaster guidelines that identify the importance of architects’ expertise to get shelters that are culturally appropriate, adaptable and environmentally sustainable. Since then, the importance of intervention of expertise and knowledge from the private sector (especially architecture) is increasingly recognized.  

The Pragmatic Humanitarian Approach

The main rationale behind the humanitarian approach to shelter design is that a universal solution can be found. Drewry describes the standards imposed by humanitarian organizations as cutting across local realities, spaces and nations, in addition to relying on a universal human inclination. This universality is accentuated in the UN report One Humanity: Shared Responsibility (2016) by introducing the notion of “common humanity” and a globalized world that needs an inclusive approach that “transcend cultural, religious or political differences”. Oddly, this approach is simultaneously criticized for being not universal enough and too universal. Douzinas criticizes it for exaggerating the Universalist dimension, whereas Fassin sees that there are major gaps to get to a “timeless” design. O’Hagan and Hirono advance the term “cultures of humanitarianism” to describe the inescapable culture dimension imposed on any intervention, while Dijkzeul and Sandvik highlight the inevitable political interference.    

This universalism gist is reflected by the standardization of shelters’ design: the prototypes, a “check the box” strategy adopted to assess the designs for universal use. These standardizations are echoed in the quantitative approach to spaces provided. For example, the “minimum 3.5m2 covered living space per person”. This is well pronounced in Sphere Handbook, the 2015 State of the Humanitarian System report by ALNAP and NRC Urban shelter guidelines that provide building codes and enforcement for minimum humanitarian standards. Lastly, the shelter design by humanitarians is known as the “basic needs approach”.

The Professional Architect’s Approach

Architects often wonder why agencies do not reach out to them while having the expertise to build shelters in complex situations. They criticize the “grid-like” layouts of camps and the absence of innovative creative design. They see the humanitarian sector as preoccupied with minimum standards, metrics and spreadsheets full of numbers and ticking boxes, without reflecting on how this may affect people’s lives. Humanitarians rarely think this expansively. The interest of architects in “humanitarian” career pathways is growing extensively. Before the Indian Ocean Tsunami, architects were typically engaged in a logistical and technical capacity and not as designers. Nowadays, scholars debate the need for extensive engagement of architects in humanitarian design.

However, the nature of a post-disaster situation exposes a gap in architecture knowledge: shelter provision calls for different approaches to design than those trained in architects, such as being more a humble facilitator and not the star of the show as in individual projects. The conventional design approach of architects, characterized by making “personal marks” is not appropriate to the context of emergencies. Recently, many architecture competitions took the provision of shelters for displaced people as their main objective. The architect’s professionalism allows him to analyze the shelter question as both an artifact and a problem-solving design. Despite this training, architects are generally absent in the design of shelters and are typically employed in management positions.

First, the debate of context in architecture design is well established, the application of a genius-loci approach as opposed to universalism is seen as winning the argument: the contextualization of the design is a basic foundation of any architectural project.  In contrast with humanitarians, the architects don’t see the problem as only providing physical protection, but shelters should play an active role in rebuilding the lives and social factors broken by the disaster. Da Silva (2010) added that the design of the shelter should also be a “catalyst” for recovery.   

Accordingly, local culture, which binds a community, has to be at the center of design decisions. Duyne Barenstein (2011) notes that, in disasters, culture question is treated as a luxury, not a priority in humanitarian response. The long-term impact of such decisions is highly stressed also. This comes in opposition to the standardization approach by humanitarian organizations, as the distinctiveness of every context should be studied to provide a “people-oriented” housing design. The statistical methods adopted by humanitarian organizations (i.e. counting affected people, numbers of shelters needed and calculation of m2 by shelter provided), are contrasted by the qualitative approach: asking about the people’s aspirations, specificities, cultural backgrounds and emotional needs. Adding to this the aesthetic dimension: beauty is a word that rarely comes up in the context of displaced people’s living spaces. The architects dare to look at this criterion.

Plenty of publications recognize the limitations, problems, disconnections and confusion related to shelter design, however, it is rare to catch researchers outlining solutions, let alone implementing them. The sector of humanitarianism preservers the use of outdated key terms and the lack of trained specialists. There remains no agreement on what constitutes an “adequate” shelter. This confusion is exacerbated by the challenges of the emergent humanitarian architecture field. This is now a fertile ground for research. Although the volume of research done in every field, separately, is of huge amount; few scholars have noted this divergence in addressing the humanitarian design between humanitarians and architects, and fewer have started to propose methodologies and techniques to converge these two points of view.


As shown above, the divergence between architects and humanitarian organizations is based more on stereotypes built of each other than real opposition. The question of shelter design requires a transdisciplinary approach that overlooks the limitations and obligations of one discipline over the other. Adopting a new eye in looking at this subject can start by adopting a new methodology that can be constructed from the already huge amount of designs presented, to extract guidelines and recommendations to follow in the future. However, an acknowledgment of the huge challenges at this stage is a must. First, the results of this new methodology are limited to specific space and time. This is to answer the essential cultural question by the architects and their field. Thus, a generalization of the outcome is not reached easily. But, most recommendations and guidelines will form a foundation to start a bridging process to the two methodologies, aiming towards a better proposal and more understanding of the needs and aspirations of the displaced people.