/ Buildings / Cutwork Designs Pioneering ‘Just-Add-Water’ Refugee Shelter

Cutwork Designs Pioneering ‘Just-Add-Water’ Refugee Shelter

Parul Dubey on September 13, 2019 - in Buildings, News

Cutwork, the award winning architecture and design studio, has developed a pioneering self-built, low-cost, long-term, ‘just add water’ housing solution to help address the critical humanitarian crisis in refugee housing. Its innovative pioneering design resolves many of the critical problems currently unaddressed by more conventional solutions in place.The Cortex Shelter by Cutwork takes only one day and two unskilled people to build it. Designed to be assembled easily and effectively by hand, it requires no technical construction skills and no heavy equipment or machinery. Cost, energy and environmentally efficient, the Cortex Shelter by Cutwork affords those living in it stability, security, and a far greater quality of life. Factors so often absent from refugees’ lives and living conditions. 

Global Refugee Housing Crisis

There are 25.9 million refugees in the world today (1). The World Bank projects that 143 million people will be forcibly displaced by 2050 (2). To house this tremendous number of vulnerable people 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, such as Dadaab in Nigeria, 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.

Critical Solution Through Design

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 

Long-lasting, Secure, Sustainable, Comfortable, Affordable

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 cheap to build and 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 organisational support.  

Project Cortex Shelter by Cutwork
Design Cutwork
Client Cortex Composites
Year 2019
Build time 24 hours
Length 22.6ft/ 6.9m
Width 11.8ft/ 3.6m
Full Height 9.7ft/ 2.95m
Wall Height 6.9ft/ 2.1m
Roof Slant Height 6.6ft/ 2m
Photo Credits Courtesy Cutwork




Innovative Technology

On a technological level there are other clear benefits to the Cortex Shelter by Cutwork. Cutwork’s design process optimises 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; using 90% less material than traditional concrete (only 1.25cm thick); possessing more than triple the compressive strength (9000+ psi) of traditional concrete; and resulting in 90% carbon savings from traditional concrete. 

As Kelsea Crawford (Cutwork CEO/Co-founder) 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.’ 

About Cutwork

Cutwork is an award-winning architecture and design studio based in Paris, specialized in coworking and coliving spaces. It designs innovative spaces and furniture for pioneering companies who are reimagining the way space is shared. A team of architects, designers, engineers, and researchers, Cutwork designs smart, multi-use architectural and interior concepts that make it easy to continually transform a space, build better communities, and encourage collaboration. In 2018, Cutwork was named in the EIT Climate-KIC list of Europe’s Top 30 Cleantech Startups.Recent projects include Station F, the largest startup campus in the world home to 1000 startups and the European hubs of Facebook, Microsoft, Ubisoft, and Flatmates, the first large-scale coliving space in Paris for 600 entrepreneurs.


Instagram: instagram.com/cutwork 

About Cortex Composites

Cortex Composites is a manufacturing company that has developed and is pioneering a revolutionary cement product that is delivered in rolls and hydrated in situ to replace standard poured cement. No heavy equipment, skilled labour, rebar, or formwork is needed, and the product can be installed 30 times faster than standard cement at a lower cost. The material can contour to complex surfaces before hydration and can be used in a range of infrastructure applications, finishing at over three times the strength of standard cement. The company owns 30 patents worldwide.



  1. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, 19 June 2019.  https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html
  2. Rigaud, Kanta Kumari; de Sherbinin, Alex; Jones, Bryan; Bergmann, Jonas; Clement, Viviane; Ober, Kayly; Schewe, Jacob; Adamo, Susana; McCusker, Brent; Heuser, Silke; Midgley, Amelia. 2018. Groundswell : Preparing for Internal Climate Migration. World Bank, Washington, DC. © World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/29461 License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.UN
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