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Design and new trends in temporary living for emergencies and nomadism


There is a long tradition of research, projects and experiments regarding the issue of temporary living. It is a very fertile field of reflection because it represents the intersection of practical needs with the aspiration, sometimes utopian, toward an extreme simplicity in living and an innate desire for freedom and exploration. Here, we will draw a quick historical overview exemplified by four design stories that are indicative of certain strategic and typological research lines, and then, we will present an updated overview of trends in contemporary design and production.

1. The Mediterranean area and forms of precariousness: the temporary dwelling

The Mediterranean area is a fragile and geologically unstable region due to its environmental, social and political ecosystems. It is a fluid territory in which the mobility of its people and cultures has become a part of its identity over the course of time; factors such as transience, mobility, insecurity, migration and nomadism are always present there, despite their opposition to the prevalent cultural model of permanence and long-lasting habitation. It is a vulnerable area in which the progressive inattention to environmental protection and proper management of the landscape has amplified the effects of natural disasters, and more and more, has transformed events during disasters.

In addition to these factors, we also should consider social problems related to fluctuations in the economy and politics that fuel migration and poverty.

In this context, an emergency can refer to many things: the need to respond quickly to sudden and unexpected cataclysms; the constant presence of social situations that are sometimes chronic and now increasing in size and number; and the hospitality management of large concentrations of people in a specific time and place (as in the case of major events).

The theme of the emergency is connected to the dwelling by a dialectic comparison of the sense of the precarious with the desire for stability, the insecurity of the situation with the security related to the concept of home, the relationship between the permanent and the temporary and between the fixed and the mobile.

This is an important topic in design culture, which is based on experimentation in military field and has expanded throughout the twentieth century through the research and solutions of distinguished interpreters: Le Corbusier’s early studies in Maison Voisin (1920) and in the Logis Provisoires Transitoires during the post-war period (1944), the Dymaxion Deployment Unit by Buckminster Fuller (1940), the Emergency Mobile Housing by P. Jeanneret and J. Prouvé (1945) and the Mobile Housing Unit by M. Zanuso and R. Sapper and the Mobile House by A. Rosselli and I. Hosoe, which are presented in the exhibition, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape at MOMA, New York (Ambasz, 1972; Mango & Guida, 1988; Firrone, 2007).

Alongside many proposals that have been stimulated by real and often urgent needs, an ideological strand has led to the development of new models of mobile dwelling that culminated in the eradication of the static concept of the city form in the futurist Walking City by Archigram in 1964; it is a design aspiration that is aimed at lightness and fluidity in living, which has produced many visions and proposals (Ambasz, 1972; Schwartz-Clauss, 2002), that have anticipated the current changes in social life and are only now being viewed with interest by the world of production.

2. Case studies: a comparison of four experiences 

We will now return to real life situations, though not solely emergencies. They have stimulated many research studies and projects regarding the topic of temporary or mobile dwellings, which we will now discuss. Each of these design stories can be taken as emblematic of the different types of construction (prefabricated modules, tents, containers, modular systems, etc.) or sustainability approaches in the social and natural environment.

Paris, 1954. An exceptionally harsh winter drove the Abbe Pierre to promote a fundraiser for the construction of emergency housing for the homeless. The project was then entrusted to Jean Prouvé, who designed the Maison des Jours Meilleurs (Better Days House). An expert in precast construction, Prouvè tackled the problem from a technical and logistical point of view, but also devoted great care to the qualitative configuration of the inhabitable space, arousing comment from Le Corbusier, who called it “the perfect object to live, the most brilliant thing ever built”(1956). The house, which could be assembled in seven hours by a few men with simple equipment, was 57 square meters and included two bedrooms and a large living room in addition to the core technical and structural steel for the toilet facilities and for the kitchen. From the constructive point of view, it was constituted of a steel frame on a concrete base, with wooden sandwich prefabricated panels that include openings and fixtures as well as cover panels in wood and aluminium sheet that jutted out to form the entrance porch.

This system’s components, which are easily storable, transportable and mountable, combined certain basic requirements – lightweight, low cost, durability of materials and comfort – but, it was too innovative for its time and it did not result in the mass production that was anticipated. It represented, however, a model and a reference point for subsequent experiments in the field of lightweight precast. Recently, an original version of the Maison des Jours Meilleurs was restored and was exhibited in the Paris gallery of Patrick Seguin in 2012 and during the Design Miami Basel in 2013.[1]

Valley of Muna (Mecca), 1975. Every year, during the pilgrimage to Mecca, it is necessary to erect temporary shelters in a wide area covering approximately 25 kilometres for an extremely large concentration of pilgrims who arrive from all over the world (about 2-3 million). Since 1975, the architect Frei Otto, together with the Research Centre of the University of King Abdul Aziz in Jeddah, has been engaged in numerous studies aimed not only at streamlining the logic of the settlement by integrating it with facilities and equipment for collective services, but also aimed at providing temporary housing made of lightweight structures that can be assembled and disassembled quickly. In particular, Frei Otto has designed an innovative solution consisting of a multi-story tent that can be installed with ease and less environmental impact on the hillsides of the valley and that provides internal conditions with enhanced habitability and ventilation. The tents, which have a square base with sides measuring 4 meters, can have up to three levels. The structure is self-supporting, with a frame made of aluminium profiles and wooden panels for the planking level; the casing is based on the traditional spire roof, which is made of a single sheet of fabric, while other fabrics enclose the perimeter, so that the overlapping flaps ensure protection from the sun, but also provide ventilation and a view. The ground anchor consists of holes drilled straight into the rock, where the structure of the tent is secured with simple joints once it is calibrated at a horizontal level (Guida, 1992). It is a simple system, which rationalises the use of space and has minimal environmental impact.

Irpinia earthquake, 1980. In the long list of earthquakes that have taken place in Italy, from the event in Messina in 1908 to the quake in the Emilia Romagna region in 2012, the Irpinia earthquake is particularly significant. This is not only the result of the vastness of the area affected and the high number of displaced persons, but also the effect it has generated in terms of planning and subsequent research; this is in contrast to the formerly inadequate response of the Civil Defence and the resulting lengthy periods of reconstruction, which have led to extended stays, sometimes for years, in housing units – mostly containers – that were supposed to be temporary.

In particular, it is worth noting that the research carried out by the Course of Design in the Faculty of Architecture in Naples (prof. R. Mango and E. Guida), which was conducted from 1981 to 1987, through an agreement with the Commissioner Extraordinary Government for Reconstruction, has resulted in the implementation of a prototype of a housing module (Cecere, Guida & Mango, 1984; Mango & Guida, 1988; Guida, 1992).[2]

The innovative approach of the solution, which started with an observation of the critical issues in the management of the Irpinia emergency, was mainly due to its establishment as a system, rather than as individual units; in other words, it is made up of a set of technical modular elements that are configured as a continuous cover under which it is possible to situate multiple units. This approach allows the storage of the components in a much contracted form, easier transportation and a greater adaptability to each individual context and to the different compositions of households during the assembly phase. In addition, it allows flexibility in time and the possibility that they can be regenerated for future use. An additional aspect concerns the quality of living that, despite the reduction in space, is expressed in the study of possible configurations, in the relationship between interior and exterior spaces, between private and public spaces and in the definition of the home space. It is a technical solution that does not forget the real dynamics of everyday use and is careful to ensure living conditions that respect the dignity of people who have already been hit hard.[3]

Civil war in Rwanda, 1994. To accommodate more than 2 million refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided a supply of tents that were made of an aluminium structure and PVC sheets; however, they were soon dismantled by the refugees themselves, who sold the aluminium poles and replaced them with branches of trees that were cut on site. This was a procedure that aggravated the already critical level of deforestation. To resolve this problem, the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban designed an emergency shelter structure using paper tubes that were first tested for durability, cost and resistance to termites. The solution was effective because of the easy production of the paper tubes and the small size of the machinery used to produce them. This made it possible to establish their production on site, and in turn, reduced the transportation costs. In 1998, fifty such emergency shelters were built in Rwanda and they were monitored to assess their performance (McQuaid, 2003; King, 2001). Following this experience and a previous one following the Kobe earthquake in 1995, Shigeru Ban has applied the use of cardboard as a structural material in other emergency contexts. He has refined and adapted a system used in Japan, the Paper Log House (emergency housing of 18 square meters with load-bearing walls in cardboard tubes), to different environmental and cultural contexts, including Turkey (2000) and India (2011). A first aid system consisting of tents with a tubular cardboard structure was used again following the Haiti earthquake in 2010.[4]

These four stories document the variety and complexity of emergencies to which we can respond, from time to time, with the most typologically appropriate solutions and with an emphasis on strategic issues, timing, environmental balance, large numbers, duration, quality of life, and so on. The entire repertoire of projects is certainly much broader and you may refer to the specific literature on the subject for further study.

The selection of these examples also wants to highlight some major research themes for the Mediterranean area: the attention to the social critical issues in the big cities with the first experiments on lightweight precast by Jean Prouvé; the large-scale migrations and the study of flexible and reversible systems by Frei Otto; the awareness of the geomorphological instability and the idea of a technical ready-for-use kit, with an attention to the values of living under transient conditions, in the research of R. Mango and E. Guida;  the studies of new materials and forms of self-production to respond to natural emergencies in a sustainable way with the experiments in the use of cardboard by Shigeru Ban.

3. The contemporary research on temporary dwelling: from emergency to new trends.

Here, we would like to outline an updated picture of the contemporary lines of research in three areas: emergency disaster, social emergencies and new trends in mobile living.

Regarding the first area, we will describe the Refugee Housing Unit project, which was born from a partnership between the IKEA Foundation and the UNHCR. The Swedish company has been able to provide this project with its expertise in the optimisation of costs and its operations in packaging, shipping and installation by transferring them from the area of furnishings to that of an emergency house consisting of 18 square meters.

The modules are now being tested in a refugee camp in Ethiopia; they are the result of co-design activities involving universities in Sweden, Switzerland and Germany. They are designed to replace the tent systems that are predominantly used in these situations and to ensure better climate protection and greater durability (three years compared to an average of six months for tents).

The modules are structurally composed of an easy-mountable system of metal and lightweight panels composed of a particular polymeric material called Rhulite, which is resistant and insulating and is capable of filtering the sunlight inside, but not projecting internal shadows to the outside at night. On the panels that make up the roof, there is a special fabric cover that reflects heat during the day and returns it at night; the sheets are also equipped with solar panels that provide lighting and electricity inside. All the elements necessary for the construction of a module are contained in its packaging plans, which include, according to the Ikea philosophy, everything needed for its installation, which requires half a day. The experiment, which began with 13 units that were installed in August 2013, is designed to verify their technical performance and the response to them in terms of housing and comfort during use to aid in the development of a final version.[5]

Other interesting research that is currently in progress and still at an experimental stage concerns the on-site production of clay housing by large 3D printers. The Wasp, the World’s Advanced Saving Project, which is an experiment being conducted by the research centre of an Italian company together with ISIA design students, has led the innovative world of producers to deal with housing issues in the poorest areas of the world.[6]

There are numerous project proposals that address the issue of social emergencies in light of the increasing number of indigent and homeless people.

Among these, the project Pro.tetto by Andrea Paroli (2012) is particularly interesting because it is exactly halfway between the design of a sleeping bag and a tent. Developed as a thesis in Product Design at the University of Rome La Sapienza and reported in ADI Design Index 2013 – Targa Giovani[7], it is designed as a disposable kit to be provided by mobile units to offer shelter from the cold on the most critical nights to all those who refuse to take refuge in specific centres. The kit, which is much reduced in size and weight (only 270 gr.), is contained in a little bag; it makes an emergency shelter composed of an inflatable insulating material (metallic PET), a mattress and a pump.

Similar in its compactness and portability, but intended to be personal reusable equipment, is the project Less Homeless, which was designed by the Portuguese architects Filipe Magalhães and Ana Luisa Soares, who were awarded a special mention in a contest in Lisbon in February 2013. Inspired by the Ikea concept, it is a very compact mounting kit that allows a shelter to be erected for the night in only a few minutes and then to be dismantled in the morning. The shape was deliberately designed to be an icon of a house as a means of visually signalling and denouncing the growing number of homeless people.[8]

More poetic and utopian, and striking for its extreme lightness, simplicity and “pocketability”, is the project Basic House by the Basque designer Martin Azúa; it is a cubic enclosure of metallic polyester that is inflated with air by the heat of the sun or by the human body, and which then deflates slowly, providing protection against heat and cold (Richardson, 2001). It is a minimalist house, designed for a nomadic lifestyle without material ties; but, it is also a way to expose the futility of so many things around us and to return to the basic concept of home as a protective shelter that is available anywhere and at any time. Basic House has been a part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York since 2007 and it introduces us to the third issue that, following the ideological trends of the avant-garde of the twentieth century, has revealed a renewed dimension of the nomadic life as a contemporary lifestyle.[9]

There are many projects that could be reported in this field. Among them is Diogene, a mini accommodation designed by Renzo Piano for Vitra: It is only six square meters and costs 20,000 euros. It features very sophisticated materials, technology and energy performance, and in addition, it is mobile and has completely self-sufficient systems for harvesting rainwater and for the utilisation of solar energy. It is a complex product designed for industrial mass production. Revealed on the Vitra Campus in June 2013, Diogene is not intended to be an emergency shelter, but rather, a voluntary choice for shelter: It is a housing solution reduced to the essentials that is inspired by the barrel used by the ancient philosopher from whom it takes its name and that operates in total autonomy, independently of its environment (Adam, 2013).

Two similar projects are also worth mentioning. The Smart Student Unit, designed by Swedish architects of the studio Tengom (2013), is made totally of wood, consists of 10 square meters and is partially a loft.[10]A few years earlier, and already in production, the Micro House M-ch was designed by a team of researchers and designers in London along with the Technical University of Monaco as a response to a growing demand for short-stay accommodation for students, business people, spectators of sports events and those enjoying weekend visits. M-ch was developed by a research university in 2001 and, inspired by a Japanese tea house, it is a cube of 2.66 meters per side that covers an area of about seven square meters with a folding top that allows its height to be extended. The module, similar to the previous cases, it is supplied fully furnished. In 2005, thanks to the sponsorship of a telecommunications company, six units were set up on the first university campus. Currently, M-ch is on the market at a cost of € 38,000.[11]

Solutions like these, which are even larger in size, but still easily transportable on wheels, already assembled and able to accommodate more people, are now very widespread; this reflects a real interest in the market and a cultural change in the idea of living. For example, consider the Portable Home ÁPH80 by the Spanish design studio Abaton, which is 27 square meters (in 2013, the cost is 32,000 Euros)[12], the mobile unit building Su-Si (42 square meters, which allows more complex configurations and spacious rooms when combined with other modules and was the winner of the IF Design Award 2000 in Hannover) and a more compact version called Fred[13](formed by two cubes of about 3 meters per side, one inside the other, that, in the installation phase, expand to form a living space of 16 square meters), both of which were designed by the Viennese architect J. Kaufmann between 1999 and 2000.

These proposals reflect the trends of new forms of tourism and dwellings that are more in touch with nature, but that are also in touch with practical temporary needs for accommodations for study or work. They are examples of useful and good quality experimental productions that we hope will inspire new basic solutions that can be applied in cases involving social and environmental emergencies.

4. Conclusions 

From this synthetic review of the contemporary design research, a complex framework emerges in the relationship between emergency situations and design approaches. We will try to summarize by highlighting the most interesting lines of experimentation for the Mediterranean area:

– The emergency solutions in case of disaster, in order to optimize the problems related to storage, transportation and manufacturing, are strategically oriented in two different directions: the study of durable lightweight modular elements, easy to carry and assemble, where the processes of prefabrication are closer to the world of furniture than to the building (the Refugees Housing Unit by Ikea and the concept of the “assembly kit”); or experimenting new ways of self-production of autochthonous forms with poor materials but with technologically advanced systems (like the 3D clay moulding), in line with the pilot project launched by Shigeru Ban with the cardboard tube.

– The solutions for social emergencies emphasize the idea of the minimum shelter as an extension of the body, as a basic protection or a provocative ideological manifesto of an essential dimension of dwelling. It focuses on the object scale, on his immediacy and his temporary use, to reiterate the need of addressing social emergencies to other scales (architecture and urban policy) and to other levels (social and economic policies).

– Finally, the new forms of social aggregation and the current needs of mobility and transience for job or leisure feed the mass production of micro-mobile homes, with an eco-friendly and energy efficient approach. A new reflection on the existenzminimum, supported by a growing market, which could affect the concept of urban development and the relationship between natural and built environments.


Adam, H. (2013). Diogene. A cabin designed by Renzo Piano and RPBW for Vitra, in Vitra Magazine,, [12 giugno 2013].

Ambasz, E. (a cura di). (1972). Italy: The New Domestic Landscape. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Cecere, T., Guida, E., & Mango, R. (1984). L’abitabilità transitoria: la ricerca architettonica per nuove strategie abitative. Napoli: F.lli Fiorentino.

Firrone, T. (2007). Sistemi abitativi di permanenza temporanea. Roma: Aracne.

Gentile, S. (1992), “Il Concorso Fantoni, nuove utilizzazioni del pannello MDF” in Guida, E. (a cura di). Sistemi abitativi di soccorso. Ricerche, esperienze didattiche (pp.23-24). Napoli: Officine Grafiche F. Giannini e Figli.

Guida, E. (a cura di). (1992). Sistemi abitativi di soccorso. Ricerche, esperienze didattiche. Napoli: Officine Grafiche F. Giannini e Figli.

King, L. (2001). Shigeru Ban. London: Princeton Architectural Press.

Mango, R., & Guida, E. (1988). Abitare l’emergenza. Studi e sperimentazioni progettuali. Napoli: Electa Napoli.

McQuaid, M. (2003). Shigeru Ban, New York: Phaidon.

Parente M. (1992), “La risposta al concorso. L’esperienza didattica” in Guida, E. (a cura di). Sistemi abitativi di soccorso. Ricerche, esperienze didattiche (pp.25-48). Napoli: Officine Grafiche F. Giannini e Figli.

Paroli, A. (2012). Protetto. Riparo per l’emergenza freddo, Tesi di Laurea Specialistica in Design del Prodotto, Facoltà di Architettura, Università degli Studi La Sapienza a.a. 2011-12, relatore prof. F. Dal Falco, correlatore arch. M. Ziliani. Disponibile anche in: [30 dicembre 2013].

Richardson, P. (2001). XS: Big Ideas, Small Buildings. London: Thames & Hudson.

Schwartz-Clauss, M. (a cura di). (2002). Living in Motion. Design and architecture for flexible dwelling. Weil am Rhein: Vitra Design Museum.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. More information is available at See the video explaining the house restoration at [January 10, 2014]. 
  2. The research, with the collaboration of students and undergraduates in the Course of Design, has continued in the following years through other educational experiments coordinated by prof. E. Guida, including solutions presented in a competition sponsored by Fantoni Furniture Group (1989). These designs, which were awarded with a special mention, involve the innovative use of MDF for modular temporary housing systems that are easy to transport and assemble. (Gentile, 1992; Parente, 1992). 
  3. In 1984, the IRI group Italstat realised the SAPI project – Space Housing Primary Care – designed by Pierluigi Spadolini; it was based on an evolution of the concept of the container into extensible modules that can be combined with each other to allow different configurations. The 200 units that were produced remained unused for years and required a large area for storage. They were donated by the Italian government for the emergency created by Armenia earthquake of 1989, which led to the creation of the still existing Village Italy. (Firrone, 2007, pp. 116-119). 
  4. See more disaster relief projects at [January 8, 2014]. 
  5. See the video explaining the project at [December 11, 2013]. 
  6. Cf. and see the video at [December 28, 2013]. 
  7. Cf. [December 2, 2013]. 
  8. Cf. [January 10, 2014]. 
  9. Further information is available at [January 10, 2014]. 
  10. Cf. [December 9, 2013]. 
  11. Cf. [January 18, 2014]. 
  12. Cf. [January 20, 2014].
  13. The Fred project has been exhibited in the travelling exhibition, Living in Motion (2002-2007), in the “Folding +Unfolding” section, and has been published in the magazine DETAIL n.03/2001 as well as in its catalogue. 
About the author(s):

Architect, Master in Industrial design and PhD, assistant professor and researcher in Industrial Design at Politecnico di Milano.

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