cutwork develops innovative 'just add water' concrete refugee shelters

cutwork develops innovative 'just add water' concrete refugee shelters

cutwork’s team of architects, engineers and researchers designed the ‘cortex shelter‘ using a rollable concrete fabric that hardens in place when hydrated, becoming the first architectural application of the concrete material. the shelter is a flat-pack ‘just add water’ housing solution that can be built in a single day by two unexperienced people and last up to 30 years.


all images courtesy of cutwork studio



cutwork designed the shelter to be assembled easily and effectively by hand, requiring no technical construction skills and no heavy equipment or machinery. highly efficient in cost, energy and the environment, the cortex shelter offers its occupants stability, security, and a far greater quality of life, all factors so often absent from refugees’ lives and living conditions.




to house the increasing number of refugees in the world is a monumental challenge. the dilemma is not only related to materials but to points of view: refugee camps are currently regarded as temporary installations. yet, in certain refugee camps, many people have stayed for over 20 years – an entire generation.




living in exposed makeshift tents replaced every six months renders the current situation deeply flawed in terms of cost, sustainability, and living standards. more and more camps are long term residencies and so should be considered the foundations for new cities – sites to reintegrate displaced people and to rebuild thriving communities. in response to this immense humanitarian crises, cutwork has developed and designed a critical solution.




the cortex shelter by cutwork is a structure that provides stability and a foundation for life where hope is fragile. devised in partnership with cortex composites, the shelter combines cutwork’s bendable metallic tube construction system and cortex composite’s rollable concrete technology, to create a permanent rapid-assembly housing unit that can be built in a single day with no previous building experience.



using cutwork’s core technologies, metallic tubes are easily bent by hand and locked into architectural structures to create the frame of the shelter. waterproof and washable insulation sheets are then ‘snapped and locked’ onto this metal frame in the interior of the panel. finally, cortex composite’s innovative and environmentally friendly concrete textile is rolled out and laid over the exterior frame.




water is added to it, and within 24 hours the concrete has hardened to create a fully protective shell over the structure. it is literally a ‘just add water’ housing solution. built to last for over thirty years, the cortex shelter by cutwork is cost-efficient and easy to maintain, vastly more so than the current temporary tent option. in addition to this and the easy and fast assembly, the shelter has many other hugely positive factors.




weatherproofed for all seasons and climate conditions, its secure and strong walls are fire, knife, and attack proof and there is a strong key operated door for further security. the concrete floors are far more sanitary and comfortable than the usual exposed bare floor of the tents. the interior walls are washable and provide hot and cold self-regulating interior insulation. the installation of a high window provides significant lighting and aeration of the space and side windows allow for a view of the outside street.



solar panels on the roof provide energy to charge mobile phones, a vital communications source, and internal lighting. the inclusion of a toilet, shower, and kitchen cooking stove within the shelter means its inhabitants can avoid the often dangerous and unregulated communal cooking and washing areas, especially unsafe for women and children. due to the long-term nature of the shelter design and cost concerns, extra design features can be added allowing the structure to adapt in response to different circumstances and organizational support.



on a technological level there are other clear benefits to the cortex shelter. cutwork’s design process optimizes construction and production costs. this is through flat-pack shipping; full assembly and ready for use in just one day; being built by hand so no technical or skilled labour is required; local and on-demand production with distributed manufacturing resulting in no need for warehousing or excess waste and therefore less shipping distance and associated cost and emissions.



likewise, cortex composite’s innovative material outperforms traditional concrete by taking less time to install and dry. it uses 90% less material than traditional concrete (only 1.25cm thick), has more than triple the compressive strength (9000+ psi) than traditional concrete, and resulting in 90% carbon savings from traditional concrete. as cutwork ceo/co-founder, kelsea crawford says of the cortex shelter by cutwork ‘our mission is to create stability and security for people who have lost the most – essential safety, a place to call home, and the simple foundations to rebuild communities and hope.



project info:


project name: cortex shelter

designers: cutwork



designboom has received this project from our ‘DIY submissions‘ feature, where we welcome our readers to submit their own work for publication. see more project submissions from our readers here.

edited by: cristina gomez | designboom

  • Sadly, many refugee camps, like Palestinian in Lebanon, would outlive the life of this construction. I think it a wonderful concept but I cannot think of any home country interested in temporary housing that may last 30 years.

    I would concentrate on making permanent residential or student housing versions to establish a business model.


    Jimmy Xi says:
  • Refugees? Refugees, how about homeless American families!

    Paul says:
  • I love the idea if it could be done as low cost housing. Affordable housing seems to be a major problem across the globe. I guess, considering this is new tech and the patents and the designer needing to become an overnight billionaire as the cost will be covered by governments, this will not be an afforable option to the average man in the street.

    Kim says:

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