Williams Scotsman

How Modular Solutions Can Help Homeless and Refugee Populations

As the temperature drops and we look forward to spending time with our families during the holidays, it would be remiss of us to ignore the heartbreaking circumstances of those who face yet another season without a safe home in which to live.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in 2015 well over 500,000 people were living without homes. Children accounted for a quarter of this figure. Some U.S. cities and states have declared a state of emergency over the ballooning rise of homelessness, including Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland and Hawaii. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported a record 65.3 million people displaced worldwide as a result of conflict and persecution in 2015. The report also noted that on average 24 people were forced to flee their homes each minute in 2015. 

With the number of homeless and refugee populations increasing, companies and local governments are working together to find safe and effective solutions. 

Modular buildings are typically used as temporary office or classroom space during times of construction, renovations or growth. But modular units are particularly suited to sheltering the homeless and refugees because they are safe and comfortable, not to mention quick to construct, sustainable and more cost-effective than traditional housing. 

Here are just a few examples of how modular space is being used to address homeless and refugee crises, here and abroad:


With 7,921 homeless people in 2016, Hawaii remains in a state of emergency. Our subsidiary, Hawaii Modular Space, has played a key role in a program to relocate homeless people into permanent housing in Hawaii. The city-owned Halona Road property in Waianae is home to three completed modular units that will house working homeless individuals and homeless families with children. Learn more about the initiative here.

Los Angeles

In the land of celebrity, sun and sand, there are also 28,464 homeless people as of 2016. Architecture students at the University of Southern California recently decided to combat this issue using their Homeless Studio, where coursework centers on creatively rethinking architecture for the homeless, building temporary, moveable, modular and expandable structures. Some preliminary designs showcase highly-flexible, prefabricated building pieces, lightweight materials, and generous open spaces. You can find out more about this project here.


Further north on the west coast, some 4,500 homeless people are living in Seattle this year. Compass Crossing, a proof-of-concept project that will help to prove that steel modular construction can provide a swift, cost-effective and flexible housing solution, featured 13 housing units — six double-occupancy rooms at 240 square feet and seven single-occupancy rooms at 160 square feet. Pet-friendly, the development contained extra individualized storage and options for partners to be housed together. 


Despite the quirky culture in Portland depicted on the popular TV show Portlandia, over 3,801 people remained homeless in 2016. Portland Mayor Charlie Hales considered tiny apartments for the homeless back in 2013, and modular solutions have certainly been considered to curtail homelessness. In 2013 architect Stuart Emmons began designing a 265-square-foot mini-studio apartment for homeless singles called I’mHome, with a living room and bathroom. Priced at $40,000 per unit, and fully furnished down to the light bulbs, the sustainable units have just a microwave and refrigerator instead of a full kitchen to cut costs.

The Netherlands

More than 50,000 refugees entered the Netherlands in 2015. In response to this influx, the Netherlands have even opened empty prisons to house refugees. Others are looking for other solutions. The Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA) launched Home Away From Home, an open design competition that invited innovative proposals. One of six winners designed by Bureau Zondag and dNArchitectuur, Solar Cabin combines prefabricated, modular design and renewable energy to provide temporary to permanent sanctuary while contributing to Netherlands' 2020 clean energy goals. Find out more about this proposal here.


890,000 refugees arrived in Germany in 2015. Q-haus engineers came up with a modular solution that allows building large residential complexes in short time by using low-cost prefabricated modules that can be assembled in various configurations. While the bathroom area is always organized in a 13.5 m2 module, living units can range from 13.5 to 67.5m2. This allows the accommodation of a whole family in a convenient, clean and warm prefabricated space. Units are fully equipped with kitchen, shower, sink and toilet. Get more details on this project here.

Everyone deserves to have a safe, warm place to call home. We support efforts to find solutions to end the homeless crisis and provide shelter to those fleeing conflict and persecution. To learn more about how modular buildings support uses that stretch beyond traditional applications, visit our site.

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