Object of the Year 2011






Humans have sought shelter since they first crawled into caves, and a ‘roof over your head’ remains one of life’s essentials. Yet, events around the world this year highlighted the fragility of shelter, even in the wealthiest of societies.


Some of the year’s most harrowing images were of houses swept away by floods (Cumbria, Pakistan) or pulverised by earthquakes (Haiti, Chile, China). The numbers left homeless by these disasters (c.1·5m in China, c.2m in Haiti, c.5m in Pakistan) are almost incomprehensible. After the Haiti quake, >1m endured the rainy season in hastily constructed tarp-roofed shacks. Port-au-Prince alone had >500 camps, where residents without doors or locks fought against theft and rape, as well as exposure and disease. Relief agencies constructed ‘T-shelters’ from bamboo and steel – though, despite their name (T=temporary), these structures are built to last, recognition that many Haitians will not enjoy secure housing for years.


Many of those spared nature’s wrath were nonetheless forced to confront the fragility of their shelter. As housing markets slumped across the West, some warned that the ‘iron law’ of house price growth was cracked, so that home ownership was no longer a nest egg guaranteed to appreciate. In August, the Chartered Institute of Housing declared that Britain’s ‘golden age of home ownership’ was over, and called for an end to the ‘right-to-buy, wrong-to-rent’ mentality.


Although many mortgagers have, thus far, been cushioned by sustained, historically low interest rates, RealtyTrac estimated that >1m US homes would be foreclosed on in 2010, and Britain’s National Housing Federation predicted that those who bought at the boom’s height in 2007 may not escape negative equity until 2014. (It is darkly ironic, in light of this year’s floods, that those in negative equity are said to be ‘under water’.)

Disturbingly, the fragility of shelter in the West is not necessarily linked to supply. Europe’s house building boom (in Spain construction grew by >187% between 1996–2006) created such a glut, that unfinished ‘ghost estates’ scar many a landscape (Ireland has c.300,000 vacant properties). In April, the Guardian estimated that the UK’s c.450,000 empty homes could house 25% of those on council waiting lists.


While declining birth rates in E Europe have led to ‘perforated cities’ – abandoned conurbations crumbling into ‘feral wastelands’ – booming populations elsewhere are straining the supply of housing. China alone needs c.40bn m2 of new commercial and residential floor space by 2030. Also, the UN estimates that the number of slum-dwellers worldwide will rise from 827m today, to 889m in 2020.


Faced with the need for quick and cheap shelter, a range of innovative solutions have emerged. Some are ingenious, such as the re-purposing of shipping containers to house students (France), refugees (Gaza), prisoners (New Zealand), soldiers (Afghanistan), schools (Jamaica), or entire villages (Haiti). Others are more elemental, such as the emergence across the US of small, informal ‘tent cities’, where the newly homeless band together.


It is curious that shelter became one of the year’s defining issues because of disasters both natural and man-made (though the US housing collapse has been described as a tsunami). It seems likely that in the years to come, the most basic human requirement – a roof over one’s head – will be taken less and less for granted.