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New Kind Of Ikea Hack: Flat-Packs Head To Refugee Camps

My name is Maureen, and I am an Ikea-holic. Sure, I laughed knowingly at The Narrator's "slave to Ikea" speech as much as the next Fight Club fan. But the awful truth is, I've got a Beddinge in my bedroom.

And I'm not embarrassed to say so.

But for the world's millions of refugees, a home supplied by Ikea would be no joke. And testing will soon be underway on a temporary structure that could transform their lives.

Packaged inside iconic Ikea flat-packs come all the parts needed to put together a refugee housing unit, the result of more than two years of research by the Ikea Foundation, the Swedish retailer's philanthropic arm, in partnership with UNHCR Innovation, part of the U.N. refugee agency. Panels of lightweight plastic snap onto a metal frame held together by wires.

In a video demonstrating how easy it is to assemble, Johan Karlsson, who oversaw the project, notes that the lightweight plastic is durable — lasting up to three years, compared with about six months for the canvas tent that has been the standard at refugee camps for decades. And unlike canvas, it also has insulating properties and provides privacy.

The Ikea-designed shelters also have solar panels on the roof and a fabric shade net to reflect heat during the day and capture it at night — hugely useful features in the punishing climates and conditions of refugee camps.

They're designed to house an entire family — and you can stand up tall inside them. Those last two features aren't trivial if you consider that on average, displaced people remain in temporary housing for 12 years, according to the U.N.

It reportedly costs more than $7,500 to produce a single refugee housing unit right now, though Ikea estimates that the price will drop to less than $1,000 once it's mass-manufactured. The canvas tents used now cost $500.

The Ikea Foundation has reportedly sunk $4.5 million into the project.

But is it worth it? Will they really be that easy to put together? (Anyone who has watched a grown man sweat and then cry because that last, final dowel IS MISSING knows what I am talking about.) Will they last, and will they meet the needs of the displaced?

Refugees at U.N. camps in Ethiopia's southwestern Dollo Ado region will be among the first to know. That's where testing is set to begin this month.

"We will set up 26 (ready-to-assemble shelters) which have already arrived in Ethiopia," Oliver Delarue, head of innovation at UNHCR, told Agence France-Presse.

He said 12 will soon arrive at the Iraqi border for Syrian refugees and another 12 in Lebanon, also for Syrians.

We'll check back in on this program to see how it goes. Camps for displaced people in places ranging from Jordan to Kenya to Haiti are in dire need for new, more elegant and innovative housing solutions.

And we know there are tons of other great projects out there that are addressing the issue. We'd love for you to share what you know in the comments section below.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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