Principles, standards & guides

Emergency shelter, transitional shelter, temporary shelter, emergency housing, post-disaster reconstruction, housing, and more. These are the terms which are used, often interchangeably, to describe what humanitarian shelter programmes try to do. This page gives some information on what they mean, what they don’t mean and what their shortcomings are, as well as providing a range of guides and resources to help guide what might actually be done for shelter in or after emergencies. 

For lots of examples of emergency shelter programmes, good and bad, see

Rights & principles

  • Pinheiro Principles – United Nations Principles on housing and property restitution for refugees and displaced persons
Some key literature about principles and the history of post-disaster shelter

SPHERE Standards


There is a set of standards which emergency shelter projects should achieve, called the SPHERE standards. The main standards are reproduced here, but the substance of what they mean is in the suggested indicators and guidance notes. Most importantly, the indicators are suggested; they are not suitable in every case! To see the full SPHERE standards see the SPHERE site.

  • Shelter and settlement standard 1: strategic planning Existing shelter and settlement solutions are prioritised through the return or hosting of disaster-affected households, and the security, health, safety and well-being of the affected population are ensured.
  • Shelter and settlement standard 2: physical planning Local physical planning practices are used where possible, enabling safe and secure access to and use of shelters and essential services and facilities, as well as ensuring appropriate privacy and separation between individual household shelters.
  • Shelter and settlement standard 3: covered living space People have sufficient covered space to provide dignified accommodation. Essential household activities can be satisfactorily undertaken, and livelihood support activities can be pursued as required.
  • Shelter and settlement standard 4: design The design of the shelter is acceptable to the affected population and provides sufficient thermal comfort, fresh air and protection from the climate to ensure their dignity, health, safety and well-being.
  • Shelter and settlement standard 5: construction The construction approach is in accordance with safe local building practices and maximises local livelihood opportunities.
  • Shelter and settlement standard 6: environmental impact The adverse impact on the environment is minimised by the settling of the disaster-affected households, the material sourcing and construction techniques used.


  • Non-food items standard 1: clothing and bedding The people affected by the disaster have sufficient clothing, blankets and bedding to ensure their dignity, safety and well-being.
  • Non-food items standard 2: personal hygiene Each disaster-affected household has access to sufficient soap and other items to ensure personal hygiene, health, dignity and well-being. [NB. This is actually part of the WASH sector, not shelter]
  • Non-food items standard 3: cooking and eating utensils Each disaster-affected household has access to cooking and eating utensils.
  • Non-food items standard 4: stoves, fuel and lighting Each disaster-affected household has access to communal cooking facilities or a stove and an accessible supply of fuel for cooking needs and to provide thermal comfort. Each household also has access to appropriate means of providing sustainable artificial lighting to ensure personal security
  • Non-food items standard 5: tools and equipment Each disaster-affected household responsible for the construction or maintenance and safe use of their shelter has access to the necessary tools and equipment.

Practical guides

Shelter starts with clothing, and ends with housing, and encompasses everything in between (e.g. bedding, cooking, heating, lighting etc). These are some practical guidance on emergency shelter, starting with the most basic items:

Capture Selecting Non-Food-Items for Shelter
Capture Plastic Sheeting – A guide to the specification and use of plastic sheeting in humanitarian relief
Capture1 See www.humanitariantimber.orgTimber – A guide to the planning, use, procurement and logistics of timber as a construction material in humanitarian relief
Capture1 Tents are the most recognised form of emergency shelter, but actually they are only used in a minority of cases as they are heavy, relatively expensive and not that durable.Tents – A guide to the use and logistics of family tents in humanitarian relief
Capture Shade nets can be suspended over shelters or simply over open areas to provide shaded areas.Shade nets – use, deployment and procurement of shade net in humanitarian relief environments


Capture1 There are various emergency shelter kits, both standard and non-standard (see Selecting NFIs for Shelter at the top of this section). They mostly consist of 2 plastic sheets and rope supplemented with a selection of tools and fixings. The most commonly used is the IFRC shelter kit:IFRC Shelter kit guidelines

IFRC Shelter kit flyer

 Capture Reconstruction and recovery is complex, political, expensive and involves many many actors (not least the affected people). One widely known guide to reconstruction is Safer Homes Stronger Communities – A handbook for Reconstruction after Natural Disasters.
Capture PASSA is an approach designed by IFRC to engage communities in recovery and reconstruction.Participatory Approaches to Safe Shelter Awareness Manual


‘Transitional’ shelter

A widely misunderstood and mis-applied term, the documents that developed the concept and guidance on its use from Shelter Centre are here:

Capture1 The book with the original thinking on transitional settlement.Transitional Settlement Displaced Populations
Capture1 v1: Transitional Shelter Guidelines 2009, draftv2: Transitional Shelter Guidelines 2012

A ‘transitional’ interpretation of the UNDRO Shelter After Disasters Publication.

v1: Transitional Settlement and Reconstruction After Natural Disasters, Shelter Centre, 2009

v2: Shelter After Disaster Guidelines, Shelter Centre, 2010

Capture1 A set of manufacturers’ attempts at products which would allow transitional shelter programmes.Transitional Shelter Prototypes, 2009