Millions of people are forcibly displaced around the world and are encamped in temporary shelters, often for more than a decade. Unfortunately, many of these shelters provide poor conditions in which to live and raise a family. Some of the problems are physical, for example temperatures above 40 degrees centigrade in shelters in summer and below freezing in winter, or dangerous air quality from cooking on open fires with no chimney, or insects attacking the structure. Some are cultural, such as the use of low-level windows allowing men to see into female areas, or the lack of separate male and female entrances. Others security based, for example the use of materials that are not knife resistant.

The Healthy Housing for the Displaced project led by University of Bath has studied the conditions provided by shelters around world, and asked the displaced how their accommodation might be improved. The results have been enlightening. The constraints of cost, time and materials make creating ideal living conditions challenging, but we have found that by applying some basic building science and attending to the local culture, lives can be transformed.

By discussing the problem with our aid agency and architectural partners it became clear that much of the issue was due to there being no structured processes for developing shelter designs that considered these physical and societal concerns. The guidance that existed was scattered, and lessons learnt were often lost before the next project. However, we also discovered that agency staff and architects would welcome a process if it were supported by the tools needed to analyze the situation and any proposed design.

In response, we designed the Shelter Assessment Matrix (or SAM).

SAM is a simple spreadsheet supported by a series of computer tools that predict the performance of a shelter, for example the likely temperature within the shelter in winter and summer in a specific location. SAM also contains a set of short information sheets that discuss the various issues for those new to shelter design, on topics such as ventilation, cost and security.
SAM can be used by aid workers, designers or architects to: (i) inform design, (ii) upskill staff, (iii) help write tender documents, (iv) score tender responses, (v) identify issues, & (vi) improve designs.

SAM operates using 34 key issues that our research has shown to be critical.

A central discovery by the team is just how important location and climate is, and just how much of a difference it makes to speak to the occupants, or those from a similar setting or group before designing. This might seem obvious; however, our work has shown that architects can have a tendency to think that it is possible to design a shelter that will work in the majority of settings, without fully considering the impact of climate, or that different displacement settings have very different budgets, or that the displaced are not an homogeneous group, or that certain materials might not be allowed in some settings. In addition, aid workers can sometimes overly rely on knowledge from previous projects in very different settings, or are simply too rushed or too poorly funded to bring those with other skills into the project.

Key to SAM is that it first asks the user to think about the requirements, i.e. the setting, the occupants, the costs and the thoughts of the host government, etc. then to input the details of the shelter. The shelter is then scored against the requirements. So, it is the match between the setting or context and the shelter that is analyzed. As each of the 34 issues is considered separately, the user can quickly identify weaknesses or potential improvements.

SAM can be downloaded from our website ( and is free, we hope you find it useful.
Date made available9 Sept 2020
PublisherUniversity of Bath

Cite this