Current Research

Participatory Shelter Design and Construction in Refugee Camps

Forced displacement is one of the most pressing and complex crises the world faces today. Over sixty million displaced persons globally remain caught in indefinite forced transit while disasters continue to compound and conflicts escalate. Unable to return home or integrate in neighboring nations, their only choice is to seek shelter and sustenance in refugee camps; the modus operandi in humanitarian relief. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) deploys a variety of options for addressing shelter needs in camps. Tents are the most common, but plastic sheeting, tarp, and matting are other alternatives provided for building simple shelters in conjunction with tree branches and nominal framing systems. The agency also deploys concrete barracks, caravans, pre-fabricated modules, and aided self-help housing schemes. Given that two thirds of the UNHCR refugees have been displaced for more than five years, these non-tent options are far better shelters. Yet, they are rarely deployed for financial and logistical reasons. There are other noble shelter examples such as the inflatable concrete tent Concrete Canvas, IKEA’s flat pack refugee shelters, shipping pallet houses, prefabricated core housing, laminated cardboard huts, straw bale housing, polyester fiberglass panel domes, and Super Adobe to name a few.


Most of the aforementioned options exhibit many shortcomings. First, they offer no capacity for customization. Second, tents and their doppelgangers provide negligible privacy, safety, sanitation, and thermal comfort. When used as homes for months or years, they cultivate appalling environments that leave occupants in highly distressed living conditions. Third, the procurement of better alternatives such as caravans and prefabricated modules rely exclusively on donors and finite (often diminishing) aid resources. Fourth, such shelter interjections have been shown to promote dependency and marginalization, hinder the prospects of relief to development continuum, and emphasize the transient nature of forced displacement even when it prolongs beyond a few months or years. Lastly, the international community is gradually recognizing that displaced persons are neither victims nor burdens, but skilled individuals, capable survivors, innovators, and strivers towards better living conditions. A widely-deployable self-help shelter scheme in camps and other forced displacement gatherings is thus the next step to act upon and materialize this recognition.

But self-help shelter schemes are not widely deployed, even if the construction technology is as simple as straw-bale or sandbags, because they require education, detailed construction steps, and architect intervention to conceptualize the shelter design. And there is currently no product as far as our research shows on the market to mitigate that. Given that participatory design and personalization are becoming increasingly popular due to advances in digital fabrication, I am investigating feasible technologies that can enable displaced populace in camps to participate in the design of their own sandbags shelters and subsequently build them with minimal overhead and staff intervention. Using a combination of intuitive sketch vocabulary, computer vision, and optimization algorithms, my goal is to develop tools that make it possible for technology to play the role of architects whose intervention is impracticable in such scarce-resource contexts.

Publication: Samar Sabie, Maha Salman, and Steve Easterbrook. Situating Shelter Design and Provision in ICT Discourse for Scarce-Resource Contexts. In Proceedings of the Second ACM Workshop on Computing within Limits (LIMITS ’16), Irvine, CA, USA, June 9-10, 2016. ACM.

Preserving Vernacular Architecture for Present and Future Generations


Vernacular architecture emerged as a response to shelter needs since the earliest civilizations, exploiting the limited resources and building materials available in the ambient environment such as mud, earth, straw, wood, and stone. Through trial and error, community members, builders and craftsmen, often untrained professionally, developed over generations innovative low-tech construction processes. These processes capitalized on inherent material properties, and incorporated physics to drive passive cooling, heating, and lighting systems to placate the exterior climatic conditions indoors. But all that ingenuity is almost lost thanks to drastic changes in material, construction systems, design practices, economic developments, and social paradigms brought by the industrial revolution and subsequent phenomena in the 20th and 21st centuries. Architecture today is vastly comprised of modern high-rise buildings with big glass facades and comfortable indoor environment regulated by mechanical systems and actuated by fossil fuel.

If vernacular architecture was the result of constraints imposed by austere limitations, its contemporary counterpart is the culmination of abundant  resources. Because the future does not look very abundant resource-wise, and we no longer see vernacular architecture (at least in the developed world), the goal of this project is to curate knowledge about the construction methods for vernacular architecture. In a world of scarcity, we will need this cultural memory. Thus, the present is the right time to rediscover, analyze, and conserve vernacular construction practices and expertise the way archaeological artifacts are uncovered and preserved.

Publication: Maha Salman, Samar Sabie, Steve Easterbrook, and Josie Abate. Sustainable and Smart: Rethinking What a Smart Home Is. In Proceedings, Fourth International Conference on ICT for Sustainability (ICT4S 2016), Amsterdam, The Netherlands, August 29-September 1, 2016.