Easing the global refugee crisis by building sustainable homes

Royal Academy of Engineering supports University-led research project

Date posted

14 May 2020

11:31

A project led by an Edinburgh Napier academic to provide homes for refugees fleeing conflict and natural disasters has been awarded major research funding.

Francesco Pomponi

A grant worth up to £300,000 over three years will help Francesco Pomponi and his team pursue their ambition of creating comfortable environmentally-friendly shelters in Jordan, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

The cash will fund collaborative research to develop an earlier award-winning prototype called Makazi, which means ‘home’ in Swahili, into permanent housing with features like adobe plastering and thatched roofs which can then be customised in line with local traditions.

Dr Pomponi believes millions of people could ultimately benefit from the backing he has secured from the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Frontiers Follow-On Funding programme, which supports research which tackles international development challenges. He will also be mentored by a Fellow of the Academy as a result of the award success.

Dr Pomponi, Associate Professor of Sustainability Research at Edinburgh Napier, said: “More than 70 million people have been displaced as they flee persecution, conflicts and natural disasters, and half of all refugees are children. 

“Existing emergency shelters become their semi-permanent homes despite being soulless, wholly inadequate, impacting negatively on the environment, and in disregard of the social habits and traditional values of the people they host.

“Our project SHELTERs - Sustainable Homes Enabling Long Term Empowerment of Refugees - follows on from earlier funding and will allow us to build full-scale prototypes in different countries.”

Makazi prototype shelter for refugees

Two-thirds of the world’s refugees come from just Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Somalia, but they are generally not hosted by wealthy nations but poor and middle-income countries next to their own.

Francesco’s project team - which includes Edinburgh Napier colleagues Professor Mark Huxham and Dr Bernardino D'Amico as well as academics and experts from the UK, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa - want to develop a model for permanent housing that can be adapted to different settings, and build prototypes through participatory design involving local communities and intended users.

The project will collect unprecedented data on life cycle costs and environmental impacts whilst assessing users’ comfort and the social suitability of the regional variants developed from the Makazi concept to ensure economic viability and environmental issues are fully considered.

With the involvement of Plan International, the UN Office for Project Services and ARUP International Development, Francesco believes the project can achieve substantial impact and benefit the lives of millions.

He said: “As a privileged, white male born and bred in the Western world, I always had a desire to know more of the life of others and their cultures and grew up with a sense of moral duty of ‘giving back’.

Francesco Pomponi and FFF shelters team 

“This project is part of a life-long ambition of leaving a positive impact with what I do and I am grateful that so many international partners from developing countries have supported this idea and committed to working together for the next three years.

“I can’t wait to see what we will achieve together, and how our diverse backgrounds will offer novel insights to tackle old problems.”

Professor Mark Huxham said: “Across the world the numbers of displaced people and refugees are growing, and the difficulties these vulnerable people face are getting worse. Many attempts to house refugees that are intended as temporary solutions become long term settlements, and these can have major environmental impacts. This unique project brings together engineers, development experts and environmental scientists such as myself to help find solutions that are better for people and for the environment.”

Dr Bernardino D’Amico, a structural engineering lecturer whose role focuses on construction aspects of the project, said: “I feel very excited about the opportunity this represents to help the displaced. Too often temporary camps, deployed as a result of an emergency, become a permanent place of life for many people.”

The Frontiers Programmes are a suite of activities that address global development challenges using an interdisciplinary and innovative approach. The programmes establish a global community of early- and mid-career researchers, innovators and practitioners, with different perspectives from the forefronts of their disciplines. The Frontiers Follow-On Funding programme offers mid-sized grants, worth up to £300,000 over three years, to build on previously funded projects, helping them to scale up previous activities into fully formed research projects that tackle global challenges.

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