The Role of Computational Tools in Designing Healthy Housing for the Displaced
: (Alternative Format Thesis)

  • N Kuchai

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


Millions of forcibly displaced people around the world are housed, often for decades, in shelters either provided by aid agencies or self-built from designs and/or materials provided by agencies. The environmental conditions within such shelters can be
inacceptable, with extreme temperatures and very poor air quality contributing to increased morbidity and mortality, particularly for the vulnerable. In addition, a lack of culturally sensitive design awareness over such issues as privacy, social space and gender, adds additional stress, all for people who have already undergone painful displacement. Anecdotally it would appear that although some of these problems might be driven by the speed at which accommodation is provided and the restricted budget, there are additional issues, such as: (i) many lessons fail to get transferred from one situation to the next; (ii) aid staff often have little building physics knowledge; (iii) those designing shelters outside of the aid-sector are not aware of the psycho-social and financial aspects of shelter provision. This latter point can lead to an attempt to design a-shelter-for-all-situations which is unlikely to be successful, given that the cultural backgrounds of the occupants, the climate and the financial constraints will be different in each emergency. For example, the per-shelter budget can range from 100USD to 2,000USD. This suggests there is the need to support those working on shelter design with a well researched platform that: (i) encourages a uniform design or tendering process that encapsulates previous lessons (such as not allowing males to see into female areas in some cultures; or providing ventilation for wood/kerosene burning stoves); (ii) can be updated as further lessons are learnt; (iii) produces results that are distinct to the emergency, budget and location; (iv) is supported by building physics tools; (v) is pedagogical, in that it upskills the user in issues of shelter provision. A literature review suggested no such platform exists. Shelter specialists in the sector were interviewed, and stated that they were both overwhelmed by the number of seemingly innovative shelter designs available and that they had no tool or robust platforms to help assess their relative merits or assist their design work. A pioneering survey was hence carried out to assess the appetite for computational tools amongst humanitarian aid staff across nineteen countries. The survey presented two new simple computational tools (both aimed at informing early-stage design thinking), one on daylight calculations and one on estimating the carbon emissions associated with shelter provision. The work concluded that: (i) the computer-based building-physics tools, common in normal design practice, are not used for the design of shelters; (ii) lack of the relevant skills, time, information and software costs were the main reasons for this lack of uptake; (iii) 97% of the participants identified a need and a desire for shelter design tools; (iv) the majority felt that the two example tools provided as part of the survey were useful; (v) vast majority were very willing to adopt future computational tools in their work; (vi) any such tools needed to be quick and simple to use. Further evidence of the poor environment in shelters, and the potential impact and the importance of the use of the science of building physics in designing shelters, was then gathered via 1,400 thermal comfort surveys of refugees and the direct monitoring of conditions in 62 shelters in Ethiopia and Djibouti, and of the air quality in shelters across three continents. The results showed that the thermal conditions and air quality were very poor and shelters failed most of the time (42.23% in winter and 84% in summer) to provide a thermally comfortable indoor conditions. The investigation of indoor air quality conducted in refugee shelters for VOCs, Particulate Matter and CO2 levels showed the presence of very high levels of pollutants (often linked to excess mortality) and extremely high levels of CO2 (causing several respiratory diseases) and most importantly, that the indoor conditions could be significantly improved by applying basic building-physics techniques and alteration in the shelter designs. As a result, two additional tools were developed and tested: (i) a new thermal model of simple buildings, with minimal inputs that presents the conditions in a shelter as a time series of temperatures for a typical summer and winter day; (ii) a wind-load tool for the design of ground anchoring systems. In addition, a study was completed to see if Social Network Analysis might be useful for visualising information and material flows in self-built shelters. Finally, to address the need for a platform to aid both the design process and tendering analysis, and to upskill those providing or designing shelters, the Shelter Assessment Matrix (SAM) was developed and tested. This addresses 34 key issues, highlighted in this and previous research, and allows a shelter to be assessed for any location in the world. SAM also contains 23 documents of educational information on the key issues. SAM pays equal attention to building physics the psycho-emotional and socio-cultural aspects of housing for the displaced. SAM was tested and shown to be a suitable learning/teaching platform for those interested in shelter projects in the humanitarian context. The potential uplift in the knowledge of users following their use of SAM was examined via three exam-style tests administered to 72 aid workers. In addition to positive changes in their perception of particular design aspects of housing for the displaced, an increase (16 percentage point uplift) in their knowledge was demonstrated, which indicates that SAM might be a good alternative teaching/learning platform. Which also suggests that the integration of SAM in the design process of shelters will increase the knowledge of the users regarding critical shelter design aspects and it will lead to the provision of better and healthier housing for the displaced, housing which is cheaper and quicker to build, socially, culturally and politically acceptable, environmentally friendly, adaptable, durable and with thermally comfortable indoor environments. The consistency of the results produced by SAM was assessed by recruiting 11 shelter experts to evaluate the performance of a shelter design using SAM. Examining the results of the mentioned exercise, the 95% bootstrap confidence interval was CI[44.0 , 47.3] with a mean score of 45.7 (out of 100) and the mean standard deviation across the results of nine design criteria was 0.90, which shows that SAM reported with consistency. Moreover, the results of a contextual performance analysis of 187 previously deployed shelters in 40 countries showed that SAM can produce statistically different results for different designs and that the results are logical. This exercise also created the first empirically contextualised repository of information
on the performance of existing shelters around the world as an additional contribution to knowledge.
Date of Award23 Mar 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorDavid Coley (Supervisor), Paul Shepherd (Supervisor) & Sukumar Natarajan (Supervisor)


  • Shelter
  • Housing for the displaced
  • Computation design tools
  • Performance analysis
  • IDPs
  • Pedagogical tools
  • Environmental Impact
  • Design optimisation
  • thermal modelling
  • thermal comfort
  • SNA
  • Social network analysis
  • Post-disaster housing
  • Refugees

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