Nomadic Living System for Victims of Natural Disasters & Political Unrest


The past decade there have been increase in disasters throughout the world. According to the New England Journal of Medicine: “there were three times as many natural di- sasters from 2000 through 2009 as there were from 1980 through 1989...” [Leanings]. Additionally, due to this about 300 million people throughout the world live either in violence or are left homeless [Guha-Sapir]. Of these disasters and displaced victims, I have decided to take a closer examination of the recent refugee crisis in Syria. Accord- ing to Time Magazine, as many as 11 Million Syrians have fled their home since the political unrest began in 2011 [Genova].

Unfortunately, I do not believe that charitable organizations are doing a well enough job of allocating resources in a very efficient manner to help these victims. I suspect that due to the sheer size of these organizations, funds are either misused, or even em- bezzled. In fact, in 2010 the American Red Cross spent as much as $125 million dollars on internal expenses [Sullivan]. There has to be a better way.


The Nomad Shelter concept is my idea for a system of modular housing that is cheap, sustainable, and attempts to remedy problems not only of victims’ and refugees’ cur- rent situations but many problems with society at large [Xiao]. It has been a project very close to my heart that I began a year ago. However, after taking Design for Manufac- turing and Sustainability class, I have decided that this would be a good opportunity

to examine this design from a DFM perspective in order to strengthen it for real world use as well as reexamine the lifecycle and impact of it. This type of solution is not completely new, and has been attempted by designers such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller [Papanek 273], now is as good a time as any to implement some- thing like this.

The system consists of a lightweight shelter made by default of plastic and corrugated board. However, the design is flexible and open-source, allowing it to be built of alter- native materials. This open sourcing of the design allows the project to be fully democratic and ever-changing.

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Though the Nomad system is predominantly made for political refugees and displaced victims of natural disasters, it is can be monetized through sales to consumers and mu- sic venues as camping equipment.

Through its hexagonal shape, it is easy to form communities with the Nomad shelter and create entire communities and settlements. This kind of practice is inspired by wandering peoples of Mongolia. They live as nomads: dignified, comfortable, but mov- ing from place to place and leaving nothing behind, depending on one another [Kelly]. Though this lifestyle is not common to society at large, for situations such as displace- ment from political or environmental events, it makes sense to take cues from this kind of mindset in order to help these users retain their sense of identity and family.

Other questions this project raise is, should this be the framework of the way humanity should live at large?



The Nomad Shelter is quite durable and able to withstand most environments despite the use of lightweight materials. The shelter uses an underlying geodesic frame for its structure. Though this frame may be made of alternative materials due to the open source nature of this design, the geodesic structure itself is quite sound [Fuller Insti- tute]. However, by default, ideally this frame should be made of recycled polypropylene. Polypropylene is 100% recyclable and makes for a light but sturdy material for this purpose. However, one weakness of polypropylene is that when left out in nature, it cannot decompose through natural means; it must be recycled [Thompson 457].

For insulation, the inside walls and floor of the Nomad shelter, by default, is made of AB flute corrugated paperboard. This structure can allow for the trapping of heat. In addition, this corrugated material can be treated with a simple layer of paraffin wax in order to be waterproofed [Howard].

Due to their low-cost and recyclable nature, these suggest materials allow the Nomad Shelter to have low impact on the environment.

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Where would all this material come from? According to The Story of Stuff, Americans use 80 Million tons of paper a year [Leonard P.8]. This excess material could easily be sourced and recycled from scrap to create Nomad Shelters. It would even be possible for companies to donate their scrap material for the creation of Nomad Shelters as a tax-deductible donation.

Another problem is the issue of charitable organizations mishandling funds. The open source nature of the Nomad System allows for a complete democratization of this design. The designs, measurements, and specifications as well as CAD models of the Nomad System will be available on the internet for free download. This would make it easy for users that charitable organizations such as the American Red Cross may not easily get to quickly, to download and build these for themselves out of whatever ma- terials available to them [Xiao].

But how would the Nomad system be funded? There is other consumers who may be benefited by the Nomad shelter such as music festival attendees and homeowners. As many as 69,493 people attended Burning Man last year, a record rate [Census Ar- chive]. Homeowners who worry about natural disaster could also purchase the Nomad Shelter. Its flat pack configuration would allow it to be stored away in a garage until emergency situations. The revenue that could be made from these two markets would more than be enough to fund the Nomad System’s deployment for charitable causes.


Despite the urgency of the Syrian Refugee crisis, governments are actually less will-
ing to allow the implementation of more sturdy shelters, for fear that they would be permanent [Hall]. The Nomad Shelter seeks to remedy this psychological fear by tak- ing visual inspiration from the yurts traditionally used by Mongolian tribes. The shelter visually feels very temporarily, as it should, but is durable, and still allows for the user to retain a sense of home and safety [Xiao].


Nomad clustering and forming of blocks, sectors, settlements
In order to help refugees retain a sense of community, identity, and family, the hexago- nal shape of the Nomad Shelter allows for clustering, so that it may not only be indi- vidual units, but family clusters, and entire settlements.

During my research, I have found that pain points of refugees were not only physical ones such as waiting in long lines for water, but also emotions ones such as isolation,

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loneliness, loss of identity, and boredom. Most of their time is spent visiting friends or family in other parts of refugee encampments, or waiting for the delivery of rations. Children are often left outside to play without supervision [Poulou].

One single Nomad Shelter houses 4 to 6 persons, ideal for an extended family. Its shape allows the clustering of 5 shelters, building a multiple family cluster that houses 20 to 30 people. 3 clusters can be arranged in an inward facing fashion, creating a commu- nity cluster that houses 60 to 90 people. These community clusters face one another

to create a safe space for meetings as well as for children to play. Additional expansions can be made into blocks of 16 communities, or sectors of 4 blocks. These sector and block arrangements allow for the quick facilitation of efficient water deliveries [Xiao].

Family clusters may use water tanks along either side of sidewall shelters. These tanks may distribute water and heat along the inner edges of the clusters, through piping made from recycled polyethylene, or even repurposed water bottles that can be made on-site. This shared use of water and heating allow for the efficiency of use. In the middle of every multiple family cluster is a communal cooking space. Excess heat from cooking is dissipated outward into the shelters, keeping them warm at night.

Latrines are located along each community arrangement, never further away than 160 feet. In order to conserve water, these are composting toilets, that don’t use water [Leonard P.11]. Instead, the human waste goes into the ground. These holes should be made on-site during beginning of settlement, and each community must maintain their own.

The Nomad System will not forever solve all problems of natural disasters or human conflict. However, these mentioned problems of living, economy, and politics, this proj- ect can attempt to remedy. In addition, the creation of this system should initiate these important conversations in our society. That human dignity and a baseline standard of living must be a right and not a privilege, no matter what kind of situation that befalls.


Xiao, Brian C. “Nomad Shelter.” Brian Xiao Design, 15 Aug. 2017,

Leonard, A., The Story of Stuff: The Impact of Overconsumption on the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health- And How We Can Make It Better, Free Press, 2010.

Thompson, R., Manufacturing Processes for Design Professionals, Thames & Hudson, 20017
Papanek, Victor. Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, Academy Chicago Publ., 1971.

Leaning, Jennifer, and Debarati Guha-Sapir. “Natural Disasters, Armed Conflict, and Public Health.” The New Eng- land Journal of Medicine, 7 Nov. 2013,

Guha-Sapir D, D’aoust O. Demographic and health consequences of civil conflict: background paper. In: World de- velopment report 2011: conflict, security, and development. Washington, DC: World Bank, 2011.

Genova, Alexandra. “Syria: Life as a Refugee in Germany.” Time, Time, 23 Aug. 2016, side-life-as-a-syrian-refugee-in-germany/.

Sullivan, Laura, and ProPublica Justin Elliott. “Report: Red Cross Spent 25 Percent Of Haiti Donations On Internal Expenses.” NPR, NPR, 16 June 2016, concerns-about-red-cross-finances

Kelly, Kevin. “What Mongolian Nomads Teach Us About the Digital Future.” Wired, Conde Nast, 16 Nov. 2017,

“About Fuller.” Geodesic Domes | The Buckminster Fuller Institute, 1 Jan. 1970, geodesic-domes.

Howard, Hunter. “The Decrease of Cost for Packaging Production.” Packaging Magazine, 9 June 2017, www.pack-

“Census Archive.” Burning Man,
Hall, Richard. “Lebanon Doesn’t Want Syrian Refugees Getting Too Comfortable, Even in Winter.” Public Radio International, 16 Feb. 2016, comfortable-even-winter.

Poulou, Penelope. “‘Salam Neighbor’ Documents Daily Life of Syrian Refugees.” VOA, VOA, 16 Oct. 2016, www.

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