A simple idea is not always as simply executed as it would seem. WDCD Refugee Challenge finalist Narges Mofarahian was lucky to have the engineers of Arup on her side to help bring her AGRIshelter concept nearer to reality.

Last week three young engineers of engineering firm Arup travelled to Milan to join in the building of the first real scale prototype of the AGRIshelter. AGRIshelter is a solution for the shortage of refugee shelters in urban areas, built of biodegradable, locally found materials, namely straw bales. The idea is that the whole 35-m2 unit can be erected in a day by people with minimum skills.

To finally get there, a lot has been done already, but there is still work to do, too. During the accelerator phase of the Refugee Challenge Arup contributed some 200 hours of advice, analysis, calculations, and sketch work to help turn the concept into a feasible construction. Arup, known for the technical design of buildings like the Opera House of Sydney, considered the structural safety, internal climate (humidity, temperature, daylight and air quality), and services for the building.


‘As an architect Narges Mofarahian did a great thing to develop this concept, but she needed the support of engineers to make it technically feasible,’ says Edwin Thie, senior engineer at Arup. ‘We assigned several of our younger engineers to this socially purposeful project.’

On the way, together with Narges several adjustments were made to the original design. ‘The initial idea was to use the straw bales for structure, but in Italy this is not allowed by law,’ says structural engineer Paolo Fici. ‘So we had to construct a wooden frame that is easy to assemble and strong enough to resist certain maximum wind forces. We also decided to incorporate the roof in the structure, which had to be both strong enough and made of beams of no more than 50 kilograms. This is because it should be possible for the beams to be lifted in by two people.’

Straw Building

Building with straw bales, although not entirely unknown, was pretty new for the Arup-team. ‘We learned a lot through the website of the California Straw Building Association,’ says Serena Alessi, a graduate engineer at Arup. ‘It was nice to learn more about this method,’ her colleague Antonio D’Aquilio adds.

The two were in Milan last week, together with a third colleague from Arup Frankfurt, to help build the prototype in a park in Milan. Several setbacks prevented the building from being completed before they left again. Next Tuesday, during the Grand Finale of the Refugee Challenge we will know if the building has been completed.

In any case, the Arup-team, which also includes Salah Aafar and Lachie Stewart, is optimistic about the potential of the concept. ‘The project has everything to eventually be executed,’ says Thie. ‘The design is scalable, it’s easy to build with locally available materials and offers a reasonably high standard of comfort. It’s now up to clients like municipalities and NGO’s to decide when the first AGRIshelters will be build.’

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