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Structures designed for recovery

Features | September 1, 2009 | By:

Around the world, companies have come forward with innovative emergency relief shelters.

Tornados, floods, wildfires, hurricanes. No matter what the disaster, it’s no easy feat coping with the aftermath. Developing, building and providing shelters suited for relief from dire conditions can be difficult as well. From prototype to finished product, here’s a look at how some companies are involved in creating ideal shelters for disaster recovery.

Preserving the community: Sphere Refugee Tent

The Sphere Refugee Tent, a tent prototype from Formstark, an industrial, interior and exhibit design company based in Köln, Germany, provides disaster victims with not only a shelter, but a sense of community. The tent’s circular form embodies the concept of community through form and function. Designed to withstand extreme weather conditions, the tent creates a space in which families can cook and gather while still maintaining some privacy. The 19 individual sections of the structure, which can accommodate three occupants comfortably, can be opened up into larger sections by unbuttoning the partition walls.

Plans for the tent include a cover constructed of PVC canvas. The outer tent of the sphere will be waterproof, while the inner tent will be made of a lightweight nylon. Due to the tent’s unique shape and potential ability for use in a variety of circumstances, Formstark won the 2008 Red Dot Design Award for design concept of a habitat.

Although the draft is available only as a model, Felix Stark, designer and founder of Formstark, hopes the structure will eventually be built. “I would be delighted if it could help people someday,” Stark says. “If a relief organization took interest in the draft, I would be glad to make it available for free.”

For more information on the Sphere Refugee Tent, visit

Relief at the ready: Rubb structures

From frame-supported tents, warehouses, shelters, aircraft hangars and custom structures, Rubb Building Systems, Sanford, Maine, manufacturers its relief structures for use around the world. All of the structures are built to handle extreme conditions and meet international building code requirements and ISO standards.

Rubb structures are designed to shelter communities throughout the process of disaster recovery. The strong frame systems are covered with a flexible, fire-resistant PVC membrane. The polyester features ripstop weave to prevent tearing and is coated to resist UV radiation. Fabric cladding is manufactured to last for at least 15 years.

The self-supporting structures can be installed with little site preparation and can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to install depending on the size of the structure. Relief structures designed for living and eating are relatively simple to set up. Structures are easily transported and come with color-coded components, tools, spare parts and an instruction manual intended for use by the organization providing emergency relief. Occasionally, crews and technicians from Rubb will travel to the site to assist with more complex installations.

Rubb works with the United Nations and the Red Cross, and has provided several relief structures for both organizations and their segments based around the world. “We get a great deal of satisfaction from providing these structures,” says Gordon Collins, director of marketing for the company. “After seeing the terrible conditions under which people are put, it makes us proud that those people are being helped by our products.”

For more information on Rubb structures, visit

Up in 15 minutes: TopTent

Described as a rapid deployment clearspan structure, TopTent, manufactured by Top Tent Inc., Montréal, Quebec, Canada, can be installed in a mere 15 minutes. The 12-sided, 186m tent, comprised of an aluminum structure covered with Ferrari 502 fire-retardant vinyl fabric, is set up using a hydraulic trailer installation system. Operators who purchase the structure are certified in use of the system by TopTent employees in a week-long training session. “It’s almost like driving a forklift; you just need to know how to do it,” says Monte Horst, director of business development for TopTent. (To see a time-lapse clip of the installation, visit

According to Canadian building codes, TopTent is classified as a permanent structure when staked, since it can withstand 70mph winds. The side panels, six of which have windows, are removable. Lighting, heat and air conditioning can be installed in the unit, and the aluminum frame can support two tons of equipment.

Twelve TopTents have been sold in the U.S., Canada, United Arab Emirates and Germany, and the units have been utilized by fire departments as staging areas in Orlando, Fla. The company would like to partner with such organizations as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the military or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, though getting a contract can be a challenge. “You have to be flexible since you may think you have the perfect product but the government can come in and tell you exactly what they want,” Horst says. “If you want the business you have to produce it.”

For more information on TopTent, visit

Crossing design and practicality: Red+housing

In May 2009, OBRA Architects, New York, N.Y., unveiled its full-scale Red+housing project prototype at the National Museum of China (NAMOC) in Beijing, China. The museum asked OBRA to be one of the 15 architects in a show displaying emergency housing. The show, titled “Crossing: Dialogues for Emergency Architecture,” took place on the one-year anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake.

The Red+housing units, designed to be installed on relatively level terrain, can be used as one to four individual housing units. Bamboo plywood panels comprise the walls of the structures, which can be hollow or filled with cellulose insulation depending on the type of climate in which the structure is placed. Removable windows and doors also help meet the requirements of a variety of climates. The roof is made of post-stressed bamboo plywood and is covered in waterproof fabric. Insulation can easily be installed in the roof by inserting local materials, such as leaves, newspapers, clothing or feathers, into zippered pockets in the fabric. All of the individual parts of the structure can be collapsed flat to allow for easy transportation.

The temporary shelters, which could potentially stand for a few years with proper maintenance, are designed to be installed by people with no construction experience. The components are self-locking, thus assembly does not require tools. OBRA is working to perfect the installation process to make assembly as efficient as possible.

At the museum show, OBRA architects refuted the claim that practicality is considered by some to be separate from architecture, and that aesthetic elements in disaster relief structures can seem out of place given the circumstances. “The way that design addresses need in architecture becomes an essentially architectural means of aesthetic expression,” says Pablo Castro, principle and co-founder of OBRA. “Our point was simple: Form and function do not follow each other, they are actually interchangeable terms.”

OBRA has contacted the Make It Right foundation to possibly test the structures as relief shelters in New Orleans, La.

For more information on Red+housing, visit

Abbie Yarger is a freelance writer and editor based in Minnesota.

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