Digital Earthen Shelters

Additively Manufacturing Mass Customized Refugee Shelters Using On-Site Earthen Materials

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Continued humanitarian crises have caused the amount of forcibly displaced people to increase rapidly in recent years, creating an urgent need for constructing adequate sheltering to house the displaced. Governments and international organizations attempt to accommodate the growing demands by subsidizing and mass producing temporary transitional shelters that do not always meet all the emerging needs of refugee families.

Many of these settlements are planned with a temporary use in mind, however, more often than not, they end up growing and turning into more permanent parts of cities themselves. In the case of Syrian refugees, several camps were set up in Jordan as an emergency response to accommodate the displaced families, namely the Zaatari camp in 2012 and the Azraq camp in 2014, with Zaatari camp being the largest Syrian refugee camp globally. These camps have now existed for nearly a decade, which collides with the original intentions of them being temporary, and are gradually becoming more permanent. When refugees first arrive they are in need of immediate sheltering and assistance, as time goes by their needs change and evolve in order to adapt to a more long-term setting. At the current rate, refugees are occupying their substandard shelters beyond the recommended lifespan resulting in housing that is largely inadequate (3RP, 2021).

Due to the rigid nature of the shelters provided to refugees, some families in the Zaatari camp, for example, have been rearranging the units provided to them in order to accommodate their specific spatial needs. These self-made rearrangements are clearly shown to have evolved over time and are becoming more intricate, showing a need for adapting and evolving the one-size-fits-all structures provided by international agencies into more customized solutions corresponding to individual family needs.

Additive Manufacturing in construction is an emergent technology that has garnered the attention of many researchers and developers recently, with new developments being constantly made in the field of 3D printing buildings and building components. Researchers argue that 3D printing as a construction technique can be a valid alternative for overcoming the limits and shortcomings of typical construction methods of refugee shelters being used currently, and can fulfill the requirements of adequate housing for refugees.

Earth presents itself as a construction material with various functional and environmental benefits for the construction of shelters. Moreover, earth has been widely used in buildings for thousands of years around the world and has demonstrated its ability to stand the test of time. Buildings made using earth are reusable, recyclable, and inherently biodegradable allowing vegetation to grow back into them after use leaving no waste behind (Rael, 2009). Furthermore, earth is a material that is readily available on-site in many locations needing minimal transport compared to other materials, which in combination with its other properties enables building structures with very little embodied energy (Volhard, 2016).

Mass customization is inherent to the process of additive manufacturing where robots can produce customized designs in an iterative process and no two models have to be alike, which in combination with using earth found on-site as a medium for printing, could make it a viable approach to constructing shelters that would meet individual refugee family needs. This research aims to investigate the possibilities of doing so through developing a mass-customization design tool for 3d printing refugee shelters using earth.