"Weaving a Home" proposal: Conceptual design project for refugee camps

Drawing inspiration from traditional basket weaving techniques and the flexibility of snakeskin, Canadian-Jordanian architect and designer Abeer Seikaly has developed a practical yet elegant solution to the need for lightweight, mobile, and structurally sound shelters as a disaster relief solution. The winning entry in the 2013 Lexus Design Awards, "Weaving a Home" project not only provides flexible, transportable shelter, but also incorporates water collection, solar power generation and solar water heating into the design, using weatherproof fabric drawn between durable, curved plastic tubing. This creates a scalable structurally sound tent that can handle both compression and tension loads. The double-layered fabric tent skins are also hollow, allowing for weatherproof entrances and for water piping and electrical cables to run between the layers. While the design is scalable, the models shown are five meters in diameter and 2.4 meters high. The flexibility of the design doesn't comprise only scale, where the design of the tents allow for openings to be made wherever they are needed to allow hot air out and to catch any cross-breezes. The tents also seal up tight in case of rainy weather or cold conditions.


Seikaly shared her winning project with Arabic Gate for Architectural News under the initiative launched by the Gate titled "Rebuilding Destroyed Cities". When asked how does she see the architect's role in rebuilding destroyed cities? Seikaly told us that "Humans identify themselves through their built environment as it plays an important role in shaping human identity and memory. Existing buildings, their destruction and absence as well as their reconstruction shape identity, and when buildings are destroyed, collective memories are also erased. Some cities are destroyed by natural disasters while others are affected by war aiming to erase memory and identity in order to establish and re-order the urban fabric which destroys the past and any hopes of the future. As an architect, I would start by asking questions like: How are new identities formed through the built environment? Do we ignore the past or do we keep part of the destruction to remind us of our history as lessons to be learned. How do we retell a story in the most truthful manner? I would involve individuals of many disciplines and professionals to work through a design thinking process for determining the reshaping of a city and coming up with an effective strategy to rebuild it.  This requires an understanding of the cities internal events, its culture as well as the external factors that affect it. I see it as an opportunity for the development of contemporary thought."




“Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.”

-Richard P. Feynman


Human life throughout history has developed in alternating waves of migration and settlement. The movement of people across the earth led to the discovery of new territories as well as creation of new communities among strangers, which eventually formed towns, cities, and nations. Navigating this duality between exploration and settlement, movement and stillness is a fundamental essence of what it means to be human.


Over the last century, in the aftermath of global wars and natural disasters, the world has witnessed the displacement of millions of people across continents. As refugees seeking shelter from disasters (natural and manmade), they carried from their homes what they could and resettled in new lives, in unknown lands, often starting with nothing but a tent to call home. This project reexamines the traditional architectural concept of tent shelters by creating a technical, structural fabric that expands to enclose and contracts for mobility while providing the comforts of contemporary life (heat, running water, electricity, storage, etc…).

The concept behind the structural fabric is the timeless tradition of weaving members into lightweight forms that easily collapse into flat surfaces for transport. The various threads of the weave accommodate different purposes, for example: mesh for windows and storage, a stretchable solar fabric for sustainable energy, which feeds flexible pipes for water, heat, and electricity.

The structural fabric functions on multiple scales from the scale of the aperture to the scale of a tent city, a landscape of domes that facilitate community and transcend the basic need of survival and instead a place where community integrates, heals, and renewal thrives. A nomadic urbanism that physically and metaphorically weaves a community, service, functional design and beauty.

In this transient space, the nomads find a place to pause from their turbulent worlds, a place to weave the tapestry of their new lives.

“A building becomes transparent as a result of use when the visitor steps across thresholds and utilizes interfaces without having to cross through the spatial boundary of the building skin. In other words, transparency arises from a communicative act between private and public, between light and dark, between movement and stillness, between living and working.”

-The Ambiguous Veil by Bechir Kanzari & Yasser Elsheshtawy

By nature, disasters are temporary and unpredictable. They strike various sites in various ways for various durations of time. The aftermath of devastation of disasters is also variable, sometimes lasting weeks in the case of floods and hurricanes, other times for years in cases like tsunamis, earthquakes, famine, and war.


Yet while the unpredictability of disasters has become in recent years — due to the effects of climate change and global political unrest — quite predictable, the response to the masses of people forced out of their homes and sometimes their countries is based on antiquated design systems that are non-functional as well as uninspired. Refugee shelters are often too complicated to be built quickly enough, too rigid to accommodate different sizes of families or scales of function (for example, expanding from house to medical clinic to school to community center), and they lack the basic necessities of contemporary life such as heat, running water and plumbing, electricity, and internet connections. Refugee camps are often drab, deficient in natural light, and reflect the dismal situation that its inhabitants find themselves in out of no fault of their own.


Beyond the physical failures of current refugee camps, there is a failure at the social level as well. Because disasters breakdown communities, shelters must begin to rebuild social interaction. Because disasters destroy existing environments, shelters must transform what remains into something new yet familiar.

This project proposes a new kind of disaster shelter for refugees based on a system that is inspired by the collective past as Bedouin, nomadic tribes that travel across the land setting up temporary shelters that were their only homes. The structural fabric is also inspired by ancient traditions of weaving linear members into complex three-dimensional structures. The system is informed by the latest technological advances of fabric innovation, materials, and assembly to fabricate a new kind of technical weave that is easy to erect, dismantle, reuse and scale into various functions from basket to building skin to tent.


As every fabric is composed of individual threads, the conceptual crux of this project revolved around considering the structure as nothing more than individual threads of a cloth. The goal was not to create a homogenous system, but to combine structure and fabric in a way that allowed the composite to perform in syncopation. The results of this study are described as follows:


The system is composed of durable formed plastic members threaded into a cloth in a predetermined pattern to form a singular ‘unit’. The unit itself is flexible as it folds across its central axis. The degree to which the unit can fold relies as much on the plastic members as it does on the elasticity of the fabric (the type of fabric would inevitable be one that has both durability and flexibility, and can serve several functions. Spandex blend for the general structure and solar absorbing fabrics serve the function of this project. When multiplied, the geometry and the materiality of the unit work to create a system that performs similarly to fabric. It can bend on both axis and thus take on a variety of forms, yet maintain a distinct and recognizable presence and structural integrity.



The habitable potentials of this system are many. Because the structural members are conceived to be hollow, necessities such as water and electricity can run through the structure much like they would run through a typical stud wall. Exposure and closure to the elements could be controlled simply by manipulating the individual units. Scale and division could be ultimately explored and addressed further.


Design is supposed to give form to a gap in people’s needs. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of displaced people across the world who live in misery. This lightweight, mobile, structural fabric could potentially close the gap between need and desire as people metaphorically weave their lives back together, physically weaving their built environment into a place both new and familiar, transient and rooted, private and connected. They weave their shelter into home.

Abeer Seikaly is an architect, artist, designer and cultural producer. She received her Bachelor of Architecture and Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2002. Over the span of 10 years, she has built a foundation of interdisciplinary skills that span architecture, design, art, fashion, textile design, and curation. She joined Villa Moda, a lifestyle and luxury retail concept in Kuwait and the Gulf as a senior architect and project manager in 2005 and directed the first contemporary art fair in Jordan in 2010. In addition to her independent practice, Abeer is also the production manager of Adel Abidin, the internationally recognized Iraqi/Finnish video artist. In 2012, Abeer’s design, “The Chandelier,” was selected as the winner of The Rug Company’s Wallhanging Design Competition and she was selected as a winner for the Lexus Design Award for her work, “Weaving a Home”.

Abeer's work is rooted in the process of memory - journaling, documenting, archiving, and collecting - to create objects, spaces, and experiences that exist in the realm of her narratives.