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T-Serai project awarded Holcim Award

J-WEL funded project reimagines refugee shelter design with dignity, cultural sensitivity, and sustainability

Prototype tent panels that have 24 different designs

The MIT Future Heritage Lab’s project Textile System for Experimental Research in Alternative Impact (T-Serai) has been awarded the $20,000 acknowledgement prize in the regional category for Middle East/Africa, plus a commendation in the Global category, from the Holcim Awards for Sustainable Construction. The Holcim Awards are internationally recognized as one of the most prestigious credentials for architects, engineers and planners who wish to contribute original ideas to the field of sustainable design. T-serai was one of 4,742 total projects submitted from 134 countries. The Lab will use the award money to disseminate the book Design to Live: Everyday Inventions from a Refugee Camp (MIT Press, 2021) to various international policy-makers and stakeholders. Additionally, they will organize a book launch at the refugee camp in Jordan. The creation of T-serai was partially funded by a J-WEL Grant in Education Innovation and supported in part by CAST International Exhibition funding.

T-serai provides the infrastructure to build refugee shelters, simultaneously giving displaced populations a hands-on opportunity to preserve their culture. The reinterpretation of historical applique techniques offers culturally sensitive tools and contextual design processes that can help displaced communities overcome adversity through self-determination, education, and preservation of living culture. Azra Aksamija, director of the MIT Future Heritage Lab, says, “T-Serai promotes new ethical standards for socially inclusive design in crisis zones. The project supports the cultural resilience of threatened communities through creative innovation in education and the vocational training of refugees.”

Inside of T-serai structure

T-serai upcycles textile waste to create tapestries that attach to refugee shelters, fitting both standardized T-Shelters and modified ready-made carport steel structures. Each tapestry consists of 3–4 layers of recycled fabric: canvas or denim acts as a structural layer, wool blankets and mylar shock blankets serve as an insulation layer, and colorful clothing add a decorative layer. The project intentionally introduces trans-disciplinary design processes to foster cross-generational knowledge exchange. That multi-directional knowledge exchange between participants of different generations and backgrounds allows for creative-expression, knowledge exchange across borders, and the advancement of pluralism.

To ensure economic viability, the tapestry manufacturing process requires minimum and low-tech infrastructure. T-serai has a modular approach that allows tent panels in collective spaces to be crowd-sourced. To ensure environmental sustainability, the project uses local surplus textile materials to manufacture the modular insulating tapestries. T-serai has the potential to be a prototype cultural response to humanitarian crises where displaced communities are in threat of cultural erasure.

The participatory dimension of the project involved students at MIT and at the American University Sharjah, as well as a group of Syrian women enrolled in the Youth Programme of the NRC in the Zaatari Refugee Camp. An extended version of MIT Future Heritage Lab’s T-Serai is named “Displaced Empire,” which also includes research and course development about cultural resilience through the lens of refugee inventions, in collaboration with displaced Syrian refugees, humanitarian workers, and host communities in Jordan. Displaced Empire was the larger project that was funded partially by a J-WEL Grant in Education Innovation.

Outside of of T-serai structure

Professor John Brisson, J-WEL Higher Education Advisory Committee Chair, says, “Azra Aksimija’s work supports the development of innovative solutions to address the contextually relevant and authentic needs of displaced learners. The T-Serai project is a clear example of developing and providing learning consistent with J-WEL’s mission. J-WEL is proud to have contributed and help enable Azra Aksimija’s work in the T-Serai project.”

The project also advances cross-cultural understanding through co-creation involving students from the US, Europe, and the UAE.

Aksamija says, “The T-Serai challenges the economy and life as bios approach of the established humanitarian aid system by proposing a new paradigm: to position culture is an essential human need, vital actor of cultural resilience at times of conflict and crisis.”

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