Decoding Design

Firm turns shipping pallets into transitional homes for refugees

Firm turns shipping pallets into transitional homes for refugees

Posting in Architecture

With just 100 recycled shipping pallets, a displaced family can have a safer, sturdier place to live.

Every year over 21 million shipping pallets end up in a landfill. Used worldwide to ship goods of all kinds in mass quantities, a Brooklyn-based design firm looked past the intended use of a pallet and saw a versatile, recyclable, sustainable and inexpensive building material that could be used to address another issue: improving housing quality for refugees.

The inspiration behind I-Beam design firm's Pallet House Project came from a mind-boggling statistic that 84 percent of the world's refugees could be housed with a year's worth of repurposed American pallets.

A pallet is the perfect material to provide a better standard of living -- they are readily available in most countries and they can be used first to carry aid to displaced people in the form of clothing, food and medical supplies (to name but a few) and then recycled into shelters.

The average refugee stays in a refugee camp for seven years, and the Pallet House (a 250 square-foot structure composed of 100 reused pallets),  is a sturdier alternative to the tent shelters most common in refugee camps. Additionally, it can be easily converted from a temporary or emergency shelter to a permanent residence with the addition of more sturdy construction materials found in the area.

The houses are easy to assemble: once the pallets arrive, it only takes four to five people to nail together the house, and it can be built in less than a week. At first, when more standard construction materials are less available, the structures can be put together with the help of temporary supplies like tarps to keep the inside dry until materials from the surrounding area can make a more solid roof.

As time passes, pallets can be fitted with add-ons like insulation or plywood for the interiors(this can all be done prior to shipping as well), and stucco and plaster or roofing tiles for the exterior, if/when the materials become available. Due to the flexibility of the design, each occupant can build a shelter that fits their specific needs.

Though the Pallet House was originally conceived as a temporary transitional shelter for refugees making their way back to Kosovo, and has since been used to house people uprooted by natural disasters, famines and wars,  I-Beam has widened the scope of the Pallet House to include a much bigger population by using the module as a pre-fab solution to affordable housing everywhere.

An estimated one billion people live in substandard housing, and I-Beam believes that the Pallet House could help to provide better conditions for people in need around the world.

The Pallet House has already turned many heads for its innovative take on temporary housing, and it took home the Architecture for Humanity Award in 1999. I-Beam has built Pallet structures in New York, Indiana, and the Architecture Triennial in Milan and have been active recently in Haiti and Pakistan.

[Co.design]
Images: Samantha Perry/I-Beam Designs

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure