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From Shelter to Home: Flexibility in Post-Disaster Accommodation



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Wagemann, Elizabeth  ORCID logo


One of the most critical issues in housing families after a disaster is the gap between shortterm needs (emergency or temporary shelter) and long-term needs (permanent housing). In most cases, the process of achieving permanent accommodation takes years for various reasons, such as the removal of debris and finding available land on which reconstruction can take place. During this time, affected families are housed in interim accommodation, where they attempt to return to their former routines and resume household activities. However, post-disaster accommodation is frequently designed on the basis of universal prototypes unrelated to local culture and climate, and focused on creating an immediately available product rather than taking into account more holistic processes of reconstruction. Further, post-disaster accommodation is designed according to the definitions of reconstruction programmes, which are diverse and overlapping. Therefore, post-disaster solutions frequently fail to suit families’ needs, who thus modify shelters and houses over time in order to make them more appropriate. Examples of modifications to post-disaster dwellings can be found in many countries, although research on them is scarce. Previous solutions have been criticised for being insufficiently flexible to adapt to future changes and, in some cases, for being out of place in the local context. In order to understand the process of housing after disaster and how families adapt their dwellings to post-disaster contexts, I conducted fieldwork in 2012 in Chile and Peru. Adopting a case-study approach, the aim of this fieldwork was to identify steps, similarities and differences in the transition from temporary to permanent housing. Chile and Peru were selected for a variety of relevant criteria: the occurrence of large magnitude disasters in the past years (an 8.0 magnitude earthquake in Peru in 2007 and an 8.8 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Chile in 2010); use of the same model of temporary housing in the initial phases of the recovery; the presence of different climatic zones to compare shelter in different environmental contexts; and different relationships to land (displaced groups in Chile and non-displaced communities in Peru). Specific cases were studied with the aim of exploring the nature of the modifications made, in order to understand how houses are physically modified. Combined methods for data collection were used to produce a visual description of the process of modification over time. The initial hypothesis of this research was that families would modify their houses in order to produce a sense of normality, as well as to make the shelter more comfortable and suitable to their particular needs. In both countries, Peru and Chile, the climate had an influence on the modifications made and the use of the spaces. In all cases, intermediate spaces were identified as a vital buffer between public and private space, and were incorporated by the residents. The sub-hypothesis of this research was that displaced families would modify their houses in a less extensive way, due to the temporary situation. Nevertheless, the examples show that even when families know they must leave their shelters by a certain date, they invest resources and time to improve the quality of their temporary house, enlarging it and customising it to their needs. Hence, the examples show that creating a ‘home’ of a temporary house is crucial for overcoming the recovery process, both physically and psychologically. A shelter, although basic and temporary, is more than just a physical building. The shelter represents security, stability and certainty, but also has to reflect a familiar environment, which is important for overcoming the disruption that disasters create. In this context, housing designs ought to be flexible enough to be adapted by families, even if they are intended as short-term solutions only. Building upon this observation, a set of strategies to achieve flexibility in contexts of post-disaster accommodation is analysed.





Ramage, Michael H.


housing, post-disaster accommodation, post-disaster housing, transitional shelter, reconstruction, post-disaster reconstruction, home, shelter, T-Shelter, temporary housing, flexible housing, incremental housing, post-disaster shelter, flexibility, emergency shelter, home making, meaning of home, adaptation, Peru, Chile


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Becas-Chile Conicyt