Rethinking Refuge: The People, Politics and Physics of Transitional Shelter Design

Dr. Sukumar Natarajan (The University of Bath, UK)

We are currently witnessing the largest forced migration on record. The vast majority of this displacement occurs in the Global South, often in countries with significant extremes of temperature. This means that most of the 10 million people now living in encampments are also likely facing some of the most extreme physical conditions, in addition to the loss of livelihoods and homelands. The length of encampment can often extend to 17 years where residents are trapped in a semi-permanent state of “transition”. We have conducted the first global scale multidisciplinary study of conditions in camps covering thermal conditions and the overall social environment. Observations of indoor surface temperatures that exceed the contact pain threshold of 48 °C and the lack of a process to predict and account for this has resulted in a new approach of ‘Refugee Housing Through Cyclic Design’. In this approach, we encourage the creation and testing of shelter design and the careful use of simulation to aid in identifying shelters that will deliver humane indoor thermal environments. This is just one element within a broader research process seeking to create a new science of shelter design, which includes a programme of measurement, design and dialogue with not just the humanitarian sector but the displaced themselves.

Sukumar Natarajan is the Director of the EPSRC Centre for Decarbonisation of the Built Environment (dCarb). He is also Deputy Director of the Centre for Energy and the Design of Environments (EDEn) with research interests that include: building energy modeling, energy behavior, smart meter interface design, impacts of climate change on buildings, occupant thermal comfort. Sukumar graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture from Sushant School of Art and Architecture in India following which he read for his M.Phil. in Environmental Design at the Martin Centre in Cambridge. After a short period working for the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, Sukumar returned to academia to work on the Tyndall Centre funded “40% House” project at the University of Manchester where he obtained his Ph.D. on “Modelling energy use and carbon emissions from the UK domestic sector”. The overall aim of his research is to deliver healthy and comfortable low-carbon buildings that perform well into the future. This research lies at the intersection of three key global grand challenges: climate change, energy security and health. Sukumar has published over 60 papers and reports covering these themes. He has secured over £1.4M as Principal Investigator and £7.4M as Co-Investigator in research funding from a range of funding bodies. He received the Excellence in Teaching award from the University of Bath and Students’ Union in 2015-16, and was nominated for the Mary Tasker award in the same year.