Going from self-assembled Scandinavian furniture to self-assembled Scandinavian refugee shelters, IKEA is stepping it up in the disaster relief department.

IKEA is famous around the world for its affordable, yet frustrating DIY flat-pack furniture. The design solution that many of us have encountered during home decorating turns out to be quite a good tool for disaster relief refugee camps. The IKEA Foundation, the philanthropic branch of the Swedish furniture giant, has been working with the UN to completely overhaul the housing situation for millions of refugees around the world.

“From the start we knew two things,” said Johan Karlsson, who helped lead the design process. “We needed to balance the needs of millions of people living in different cultures, climates and regions with rational production where you ideally only want to have only one solution.” That solution comes in the same flat packed cardboard boxes IKEA uses for all of it’s self-assembly products.

The UN estimates some 3.5 million people live in refugee camps, and with each refugee staying an average of 12 years, that’s a very long time to live in what for most refugees is still a canvas tent. IKEA’s solution, though still in the prototype stage, it seems much better than the conventional solution. One design, a rectangular unit, is made of four polymer panels made from  Rhulite, a material designed specifically for the project.

Better than a tent, that’s for sure

The polymer is strong enough to persist in harsh environments, lightweight enough to transport in a cost-effective way, and private enough that lights inside can’t cast shadows on the wall to reveal what’s going on inside. “In many locations this infringement on privacy is so strong that people prefer to live in the darkness, or even to abandon the tents when needing to use the light.” says Karlsson. Rhulite lets light in during the day, but keeps shadows out at night.

The IKEA shelters take about four hours to build, which is slow compared to a tent, but unlike a tent it requires no additional tools like mallets. That gives the shelters an edge. Another edge comes in the form of a solar panel which provides electricity, and a fabric shading that cools the shelter during daytime and retains heat during the night. Unfortunately, the shelter doesn’t have lockable doors or windows; the cost would be too high. Currently, a shelter will sell for $7,500, but IKEA hopes to bring it down to $1,000, about double the price of an average refugee tent.

Via Wired