Innovative Shelter Solutions for Asia’s Harshest Environments: ABB Partners with Aga Khan Agency for Habitat

Karim Allana
3 min readMar 19, 2024

The remote mountain regions of Central and South Asia harbor some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes — and some of its harshest environments. Large-scale natural disasters like earthquakes and floods are, unfortunately, both unusually common and unusually deadly here. Political instability and generational poverty in places like Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and the contested borderlands claimed by India and Pakistan compound the already monumental challenges local residents face.

Many residents of these harsh lands live in small towns or rural communities underserved by traditional infrastructure. Some live in solid houses, but others have more rudimentary dwellings prone to damage or collapse in natural disasters or even run-of-the-mill storms. Even in the best of times, “building stronger” is not always an option in resource-poor communities. After a disaster, it’s all but impractical.

To that end, Karim Allana and a dedicated group of professionals at Allana Buick & Bers (ABB) are working on a shelter solution that could meaningfully improve safety, comfort, and quality of life for millions of people in this part of the world. In partnership with Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, an initiative of the Aga Khan Development Network, the ABB team is working to improve a modular shelter system designed for rugged environments.

The work builds on a partnership between Aga Khan Agency for Habitat and Better Shelter, a Swedish enterprise that offers low-cost, modular shelter solutions for displaced and vulnerable populations. Better Shelter began as a collaboration between the Ikea Foundation and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) back in 2010 and has steadily expanded its work serving disaster-impacted communities in the years since.

ABB is providing materials and consulting on an improved design for a prototype emergency shelter that can house individuals and families at scale following natural disasters. The 300- to 500-square-foot prototype is expected to improve upon existing models with a focus on durability, ability to withstand the subzero temperatures frequently observed during Himalayan winters, earthquakes, floods and other disasters and ease of setup in communities without electricity service.

These shelters must be able to last for years, if not decades, as communities wait on rebuilding aid to reach them. They must also be designed to accommodate larger families with a range of cultural needs. They must be modular for ease of expansion and modification — a recognition that, for better or worse, these are often semi-permanent lodgings. Finally, they must be easy to deliver along complex supply chains, from “first mile” shipping to transoceanic ocean transport to “last mile” delivery into remote mountain areas with rudimentary-at-best road systems.

ABB’s work won’t be done after the consultation phase. The team plans to collaborate with Aga Khan Agency for Habitat on their shelter-design efforts to date, take note of lessons learned, and then develop a prototype that better serves the needs of the region’s population. After that, the real work begins: sourcing materials, building, and testing the prototype itself.

This will be a multi-year effort, to be sure. But the potential payoff is enormous. Aga Khan Agency for Habitat has served more than 3 million people to date, building safe water systems for more than 600,000 people and constructing some 5,000 basic institutional structures — schools, hospitals, community centers — using the latest in resilient construction technology. With ABB’s help, it’s poised to make an even greater impact on an even more basic level: ensuring reliable and durable access to life-sustaining shelter amid unimaginable hardship.

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Karim Allana

Karim Allana is founder and CEO of Allana Buick & Bers. He is an industry leader in building envelope architectural engineering and construction management.