30 Different Ways to Put a Roof Over Your Head in These Tents Times

A yurt set up in a field surrounded by hills.

Lucy Brown - loca4motion / Getty Images

Around America tent cities are springing up as people are losing their houses and their jobs. And it isn't just the drunks and the disturbed; at this tent city in Reno, Seven in 10 were from the area, where the housing market has cratered, the tourism industry is in the dumps and construction jobs have disappeared. They are the modern Hoovervilles (Bushburbs?) filled with economic refugees.

Yet is this the best we can do? For years TreeHugger has been showing low impact, portable and movable housing that could do a better job than this. Yurts, trailers, emergency shelters. Lets look at some of the alternatives for portable, movable housing that a small slice of the bailout could buy.

1. Shelter Cart Housing

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ZO_loft Wheelly: Shelter Cart

At the most basic level, architects and designers have been looking at the issue of basic shelter and ways to move it around. The challenges are great: housing must be readily portable but robust enough to protect the homeless or refugees from the elements. It must be extremely cost effective. It should preserve some degree of dignity for people who are already suffering loss.

The Italian group ZO_loft architecture & design (Andrea Cingoli, Paolo Emilio Bellisario, Francesca Fontana, Cristian Cellini) now adds their vision to the concept of temporary shelter. The ZO_loft Wheelly is private, portable, and offers a clever trick to solve issues of cost.

Portable Shelters for Homeless or Refugees Designed by ZO_loft

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While the Shelter Cart competition may not be an answer to the problem of homelessness, it certainly raises questions and challenges our ideas. We also are intrigued by ideas for living with less and nobody does so like the homeless. Smart camping equipment manufacturers should look closely. Barry Sheehan and Gregor Timlin didn't win the competition with their version of the shelter cart, but built a working model of it.

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The Shelter cart competition from Designboom produced a lot of interesting entries, including PUMP AND JUMP by jeong-yun heo + Seong-ho, Kim + + Chung, Lee from korea.

Shelter in a Cart Competition

2. Emergency Housing

These are larger designs to accommodate families in emergency situations.

zip shelter image

A shame this design is only in the protoyping stage or its 'rapidly deployable' nature could be getting some real world field testing right now. Conceived by 5 professional designers in Germany, the Zip-Shelter has both sub zero and hot climate versions. Looks like a heap of research has gone into the design, with the originators gleaning ideas from trialling shelters from Vietnam to 4000m high mountains. The idea is that 75 Zips (two different sizes) would squeeze into a standard 20 foot shipping container.

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With the devastating myriad of natural disasters now becoming more and more commonplace, is it possible to design a more effective relief response that won't echo the shamefully negligent FEMA trailer fiasco? Though it looks a little flimsy and a little too much like a second-year design studio project, designers Matthew Malone, Amanda Goldberg, Jennifer Metcalf and Grant Meacham most probably had good intentions in mind when they came up with the intriguing, accordion-shaped reCover Shelter, which they claim can hold a family of four for up to a month and can be set up in a matter of minutes.

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We have shown quite a few emergency shelter designs, but Rafael Smith may have come up with the first high-density multi-storey one. "This project is a shelter solution that meets the needs of emergency response but also provides victims with a more personal place to live; a base unit that can serve as a very basic shelter but also have the capabilities to upgrade and implement modern infrastructure. This shelter is also stackable. Many alternative housing solutions deal with small scale but can't cope with large scale displaced populations."

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Kate Storr of Architecture for Humanity notes that "For emergency shelter in the first few days after a disaster, the tent is a proven solution;" Patrick Wharram's Lightweight Emergency Shelter is a mini building that's easy to transport and can be erected immediately. Wharram's design is shipped in one piece -- an aluminum frame sewn into a piece of recycled polyester fabric allows for mass-production as well as an easy pop-up setup, reducing the possibility of misplacing pieces.

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Sometimes it is hard to find a place to park your tent. Artist Michael Rakowitz says: "(P) LOT questions the occupation and dedication of public space and encourages reconsiderations of "legitimate" participation in city life. Contrary to the common procedure of using municipal parking spaces as storage surfaces for vehicles, P (LOT) proposes the rental of these parcels of land for alternative purposes."

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Jorge at Inhabitat calls Ming Tang's temporary shelters "origami inspired"; They remind me more of the tensile structures of Frei Otto They were developed as temporary shelters for the homeless after last May's earthquake in Chian that left millions homeless and shown at the Urban Re:vision competition.

Folding Bamboo Houses by Ming Tang

3. Yurts

In terms of bang for the buck or strength-to-weight, there are few housing forms that compete with the yurt. You can buy a traditional yurt:

ballenger mongolian yurt photo

Yves Ballenegger loves driving trucks and founded Globetrucker, a non-profit that brings school supplies to the children of Mongolia. Instead of driving back empty, he filled it with yurts, furniture and other handicrafts.

As an architect I have often joked about yurts but had never actually been in one. I was shocked at the sophistication of the structure and the degree of comfort.

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While the Mongolians developed the yurt as a form of mobile housing, most we have seen are have been permanently installed.

Howie Oakes spent years developing a truly portable yurt, and his own words explain it better than I could:

"I have been interested in nomadic homes for a long time, and became fascinated with the yurt after weathering a number of Burning Man dust storms in a small yurt that a friend built. I started looking into what was available, and saw that the typical western yurt had moved well beyond its roots as a truly nomadic home. I think that these yurts do indeed make excellent low impact housing, but I wanted a yurt that my family could easily transport and setup wherever we went."

Portable Yurts from Go-Yurt

david masters yurt interior photo

When I learned that David Masters of the Luna Project lived in one just a few minutes away from Cambridge, Ontario, I had to check it out. He actually has two of them made by Oregon's Pacific Yurts, a 30' diameter 706 square foot classroom, and a 24' diameter home unit.

Living in a Yurt

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OK, yurts are no longer a bad hippie joke; they are light and efficient and a viable alternative to traditional construction. We have shown traditional Mongolian yurts, learned from David Masters that living in a yurt is quite comfortable, and seen "updated" yurts before; From near Ottawa, Canada comes the Yurta, Marcin Padlewski and Anissa Szeto's reinvention of the traditional nomadic dwelling.

Yurta: The Optimized Yurt

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he Nomad Yurt was designed by Stephanie Smith of Los Angeles. She has updated the design in "in terms of aesthetics and materials" and it does have a modular plywood floor, but the price?

4. Shipping Containers to the Rescue

They can be hot and hard to drop into emergency situations, but could be applicable in some circumstances:

godsell future shack photo

Aussie architect Sean Godsell's small masterpiece is a refugee housing unit made from a ready-made, re-used shipping container. Super-efficient and simple, but made to last and protect, the unit uses a bare minimum of industry materials. Since it's entirely self-contained, a number of units can be shipped together to their destination of need. It's solar powered, too.
Other Emergency Container Ideas
T.E.D. - Transportable Emergency Dwelling
Shipping containers and the aid industry