Blog articles

11 July 2022

Housing units for refugees and homeless people

project documentation


by German Design Museum Foundation

Text by Betty Mwema, Julita Bhagat, William Otuke and Hannah Weirich
Some time has passed since we - the pilot group of the Design Networking Hub - first met in Nairobi. Back then, we all picked a topic that we were particularly interested in and formed smaller groups. We - that’s Betty, Julita, William and Hannah - all decided on the topic of housing. We got straight to work and started brainstorming.

We quickly found some concepts that we found especially exciting. The term flexible came up again and again. Our modern way of living has to be flexible. We change jobs, travel or sometimes simply have more or less money at our disposal.

But the time in Nairobi in the meeting room was short and back home, it was sometimes difficult to maintain the same initial enthusiasm. We all found ourselves in the stress of everyday life. Some of us changed jobs or graduated from university.

Despite this, we managed to meet online weekly (or sometimes only every other week). Even though an online meeting is not the same as seeing each other live, we managed to keep working. During our research phase on the housing situation in Kenya and also in Germany, we quickly decided that we would rather design for the people who do not have a permanent home.

Since we didn’t want to design from the basis of assumption alone, the first thing we did was: research, research, research. But since we hadn’t yet decided on a specific topic, it wasn’t that easy. We read article after article, contacted experts and had lively discussions among ourselves. So some time passed, during which we learned more and more, but also discovered more and more challenges.

At some point it was clear that we needed a starting point, an idea with which we could begin to design.

For the research, we began by questioning and understanding the landscape, journey and circumstance of people who find themselves needing temporary or mobile housing. Not out of a luxurious migrant lifestyle but out of dire homeless situations. We were particularly curious about the process that asylum seekers and refugees continue to seek permanent housing as their end goal as they go through the asylum procedure. The procedures differ from country to country and an illustration of a high level process of what that would look like for Germany is shown below as gathered from combing through documented processes.

An illustration of the asylum seeking procedure and housing situation.



The desire to seek and find a new home, decent individual accommodation remains the main goal of people seeking asylum. The process is characterised by housing in emergency and collective accommodation centres. This process is not without its many challenges including restrictive housing laws and bureaucracies that hinder refugees and asylum seekers from getting desired housing in their host nations. Language barriers, insufficient information and advice on housing area also top of the challenges. It has been eye opening for us to understand homelessness systematically as contributed by external factors that directly and gravely affect the homeless.

We have been drawing closer to our point of intervention. We are positing whether flexible housing is desirable for internally displaced persons or persons granted refugee and asylum status, in their quest and need for individual accommodation. We are at the periphery of understanding what characterises safe, individual accommodation and how we aid these processes. Through innovative materials, a well thought out procedure to avail the housing, into a comprehensive solution that will serve the unique needs of our user groups.

Scenario based concept idea

During our time apart from the group we each tasked ourselves with the agenda of finding out WHO the target audience would be for the final proposal. We initially had the WHO’s based in various specific groups, namely:

  • Refugees
  • Young single parent families
  • Homeless persons

This brought about the creation of a scenario where we have a young family, displaced by a natural occurrence, having to find and seek shelter from a refugee camp.

Whilst at the refugee camp they come across a little brochure that displays the housing concept idea that would be deployed for such people in need. The family then contacts us to inquire about the product, and this is the first experience the family would have with the ‘flexi-space structure’.



Like an IKEA kit of parts, the structure can be assembled in various site locations, however, to account for the unpredictable site location topographies, the structure is set up to sit above ground on stilts.

The primary structure would incorporate timber / or locally sourced lumber, which in turn would also allow the families to pick up construction skills that can be used at any point in their lives.



The rest of the structure can then be adjusted to fit each of the family’s needs although in this case the main basic functions of a good structure were incorporated, from ventilation, lighting, and drainage.



Upon coming up with this concept, it was also realised that some areas might not be covered by land masses but water masses as well, therefore the ‘capsule’ idea came into play. The idea entails an inflatable capsule device that would be providing buoyancy for the structure to sit on.

The idea has yet to be tested through prototyping, due to busy schedules within the team.



In order to be clearer about who we are actually designing for, we recently came up with the plan to interview people in Nairobi and Frankfurt. We want to focus on people who don’t have a permanent home and for example live on the street. We want to talk to them in order to find out more about their actual needs.

Therefore, we have put together some questions that will hopefully help us in our project and give us some clarity. We will present the answers together with some photographs afterwards.

That is the current state of our group.

Most of our time so far has been spent on research, but any other way would have ended up with a product that might actually not be needed. We look forward to being able to share more soon.


As part of the Design Networking Hub, a pilot group of five German and five Kenyan designers and architects has been selected with the intention of maximizing the user orientation of the information provided by the platform. During a project phase of about one year, the members have been working in small bilateral teams and jointly developing new product and business ideas or not-for-profit concepts in the fields of housing, social design and technology. A detailed overview of the selected participants can be found here.

Back to overview