February 9, 2016 / 1:21 PM / 2 years ago

3-in-1 'wearable shelter' for Syrian refugees

4 Min Read

Design students from London's Royal College of Art have created a prototype coat that transforms into a tent or sleeping bag. They believe the garment could offer aid agencies a cheap and sustainable solution to help refugees arriving in Europe.

The 'wearable shelter' is made from Tyvek, a material that is tough and durable enough to withstand tears. It's also waterproof but breathable, so allows condensation to escape. When transformed into a tent or sleeping bag, the designers say it retains the body heat of the person inside, thanks to a lining made from the insulating material Mylar.

More than 1.1 million people fleeing poverty, war and repression in the Middle East, Asia and Africa reached Europe's shores last year, almost all heading for Germany. Most of those arrived with just the possessions that they could carry. The team from RCA says their wearable shelter is not meant to be a long term solution, but an aid for refugees in the days between arriving in Europe and reaching a processing center.

"The brief that I set our students to think about how a garment could convert into some kind of shelter for the approximate three-week period that many refugees are spending getting from points of arrival within the EU to processing centers. The idea was to really make sure that the materials used were sustainable, were affordable, could make it very easy and quick for us to mass produce the garment which means we could distribute it quickly and through lots of different agencies," explained project co-leader Dr. Harriet Harriss.

"We contacted a lot of agencies, and one of them was Medicines Sans Frontier which is really involved in helping people on site," said co-designer Ann Sophie Geay. "The first thing we were thinking was how do you have, literally, almost all of your house - how can you wear your house and your personal items and personal belongings?"

The design uses origami-inspired folding to morph into the three structures -- coat, sleeping bag or tent -- with each one taking about a minute for a single person to build.

The team of 10 master's students is still perfecting the current working prototype and experimenting with different materials that will maintain stability while constructed as a tent, such as kite poles that would be slotted into the frame. They are also working on a design that will have add an inflatable element to the structure.

The hooded parka-style jacket has large waterproof storage pockets. It was a prime concern that the garment was able to accommodate a person's possessions, with the weight distributed so as not to cause discomfort.

"It converts easily into a sleeping bag, becomes a shelter that can accommodate one adult and a couple of children, and obviously a coat that can carry lots of different features such as documentation, mobile phones, personal effects. And there're even panels that allow people to carry some aspect of clothing and so on, to distribute the weight," added Harriss.

The final prototype is currently under construction in China. The aim is to field test it in early summer with the ultimate goal of having a viable product for aid agencies to distribute among refugees before temperatures drop.    

The young designers recently launched a campaign on crowd-funding site Kickstarter to help fund mass production of the garment, and help refugee aid agencies transport and distribute the wearables to the places it's needed most.

The low-cost, charity-focused, design represents a paradigm shift for an industry too often focused on luxury items, according Dr Harriet Harriss. She hopes the wearable shelter will demonstrate how designers can have a positive impact on society.

"This is a project that demonstrates the fact that design isn't just about exclusivity and wealthy products, that it has a social heart," said Harriss, adding: "Design needs to show a bigger social commitment to these kinds of problems."

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