Adaptive Pneumatic Shelters

The focus of this project is the creation of rapidly deployable refugee shelters for the Middle East, where political, social and religious conflicts frequently result in the displacement and forced migration of large numbers of people. The shelter types typically provided by aid organisations take little account of the often extreme weather conditions in the region. Nor do they meet the basic demographic and cultural requirements of those being housed. The average family size in the Middle East exceeds six; the standard shelter has a maximum capacity of four to five, and its design ignores the fact that tradition dictates a clear separation between male and female living spaces. Another crucial aspect in the development of the system was to allow for shelter extension or subdivision, a reflection of the reality that camp populations vary, sometimes dramatically, over time.

The project tackles these problems by means of a low-tech pneumatic shelter system that makes use of the natural abundance of sand in the region. An exploration of various strategies for deploying specific characteristics of pneumatic membranes in relation to the climatic context was informed by issues of environmental control, privacy and the often-overlooked fact that short-term emergency shelters tend to become permanent. Camp organisation was investigated in terms of shelter size, distribution and orientation.

Because of their non-linear properties, differential material capacities and multiple states of stability, pneumatic systems are well suited to the construction of highly articulated structures that are transparent, lightweight and rapidly deployable. To develop a design that would suit the shelter typology, the project explored pneumatic systems on three scales: single cushion, group of cushions, and overall assembly of a shelter unit. In addition a strategy was devised to utilize sand – the sole readily available local building material –to deliver additional performance capacity to the system. The sectional differentiation of the pneumatic shelters is based on aerodynamics, modulating airflow and creating zones of pressure differential to remove sand from or deliver it to specified areas of the system, so as to stabilise it and modulate the light and temperature conditions of the interior. Small pockets welded into the leading edges of cushions face the direction of airflow and collect sand to increase the overall weight of the structure and the thermal mass of the shelter. The distribution pattern of the sand-collectors on these cushions contributes to the modulation of solar penetration and visual exposure.

AA Diploma Unit 4 (Michael Hensel, Achim Menges)
Hani Fallaha, Architectural Association, London, 2003-04