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. It was last update in 2018. The main standards are reproduced here, but the substance of what they mean is in the key actions, key indicators and guidance notes. Most importantly, the indicators are not necessarily appropriate in every context. They are indicators only – they are not themselves the standard. To see the full SPHERE standards see the SPHERE site.

  • Shelter and settlement standard 1: planning. Shelter and settlement interventions are well planned and coordinated to contribute to the safety and well-being of affected people and promote recovery.
  • Shelter and settlement standard 2: location and settlement planning. Shelters and settlements are located in safe and secure areas, offering adequate space and access to essential services and livelihoods.
  • Shelter and settlement standard 3: living space. People have access to living spaces that are safe and adequate, enabling essential household and livelihoods activities to be undertaken with dignity.
  • Shelter and settlement standard 4: household items. Household item assistance supports restoring and maintaining health,
    dignity and safety and the undertaking of daily domestic activities in and around the home.
  • Shelter and settlement standard 5: technical assistance. People have access to appropriate technical assistance in a timely manner.
  • Shelter and settlement standard 6: security of tenure. The affected population has security of tenure in its shelter and settlement
  • Shelter and settlement standard 7: environmental sustainability.  Shelter and settlement assistance minimises any negative programme
    impact on the natural environment.

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



CARE developed guidance on addressing gender equity in shelter programmes in 2016.CARE_Gender & Shelter Good Programming Guidelines



‘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