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Breathing space

A picture of Humanihut, the award-winning emergency accommodation concept lauded globally for its humanitarian approach to sheltering people in need.


25 May 2023

Southern Cross University Alumnus of the Year 2019, Neale Sutton, is the man behind Humanihut, the award-winning emergency accommodation concept lauded globally for its humanitarian approach to sheltering people in need.

an artist rendition of humanihuts

Breathing space

Southern Cross University Alumnus of the Year 2019, Neale Sutton, is the man behind Humanihut, the award-winning emergency accommodation concept lauded globally for its humanitarian approach to sheltering people in need. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), almost 83 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes. Of these, 26.4 million are refugees and of those, half are under the age of 18.

Neale Sutton – Southern Cross University's 2019 Alumnus of the Year – ponders such sobering statistics from several perspectives. A former soldier, he has witnessed the destruction and displacement caused by conflict. A former military observer, he is well-versed in the diplomatic and logistical challenges that can frustrate the process of nations accepting and caring for refugees. As a humanitarian, he embraces the importance of dignity and recognition for people who have lost everything else.

Each of these contexts is valid; however, it is their accommodation under Neale's entrepreneurial guidance that is bringing international attention – accommodation being the appropriate word.

Neale is the founder and CEO of Humanihut, the innovative temporary accommodation concept that has applications for the global refugee crisis and other areas too, including disaster relief, emergency management, mining and construction, and defence.

"Humanihut provides a refuge for refugees; a place for the displaced; and a multi-faceted and superior solution literally under one roof."

The Humanihut is a folding, insulated, rigid wall, climate-controlled structure able to withstand the harshest of climatic conditions. It provides shelter, comfort and security for up to eight people and is easily expanded to accommodate more. Bathroom facilities, along with social, storage and utilities spaces, are all features of this versatile product that has a lifespan of 20 years.

Its humanitarian value is not so easily calculated. Best just to say that Humanihut provides a refuge for refugees; a place for the displaced; and is a multi-faceted and superior solution literally under one roof.

Rapid response, deep impact

Speaking from his home in Adelaide, Neale describes Humanihut as breathing space: "It enables people in need and the authorities charged with their care to take a breath, to be safe and comfortable, and to have the space and time required for more permanent arrangements to be made. It is rapid response with a deep impact."

The catalyst for Humanihut came from Neale's experience in 1999-2000 in East Timor, where he was deployed as a Military Observer to the UN Transitional Authority that was controlling the repatriation of refugees from West to East Timor.

“About 3500 people a day were coming back, transported in columns of open trucks across a border that was just a Bailey bridge and a customs hut," he says. "It was a poorly established site and when it started to rain, the refugees were suddenly freezing and there was nowhere for them to go for shelter. Many went down with exposure.

“We learned there was an abandoned school about 20km away, but there were difficulties in gaining permission to accommodate the refugees there, as well as in convincing the nervous drivers to transport them. The refugees continued to suffer. I just thought we could do better.”

Though Humanihut's seed had been planted, it was not until 2013-14 that the concept really developed, this time via another humanitarian crisis as tens of thousands of refugees of the Syrian War crossed into Jordan and Lebanon.

“People were being housed in poor quality tents and sheds. They were on dirt floors. They were in facilities that were dreadfully hot during the day, freezing at night and makeshift at best. Every six months the tents would need to be replaced, in the hundreds," says Neale.

"I saw a video of one family that had been given a new tent and the mother was saying how grateful they all were. Then she pointed out the leaks, the draughts, the defects and so on. It was clear that this structure, despite being new, was not going to last either.

"It was then that I started thinking in greater detail about the need for a superior form of temporary accommodation; something that could be rapidly deployed to provide shelter, comfort, cleanliness, security and dignity for people in need.

"Power, clean water and sewerage were fundamental, and I wanted something quick to transport, install and maintain. And I wanted durability. Something that would last not just a few months, but years, because tragically the fate of refugees can be to live in these camps for many years.

"Eventually I also began to consider applications outside of the refugee crisis. Emergency shelter and administration, for example, and remote mining and construction scenarios. Even military accommodation. As my design evolved, what took shape was an accommodation option enabling a high standard of living conditions and which was easily transported, deployed, dismantled, stored and accessed again when required."

Widespread recognition

Accolades have followed. Humanihut was shortlisted from more than one million global start-up and corporate venture nominations to be listed 63rd in the 2016 Disrupt100 list of businesses with the most potential to influence, change or create new global markets.

Two years later, Humanihut received the Good Design Award for Best in Class for Engineering Design. In 2019, Humanihut was the Overall Winner in the Design Strategy category at the Business SA Export Awards, followed by being named Estate and Infrastructure Business of the Year at the Defence Industry Awards 2020.

As Humanihut adapts and evolves, Neale continues to access the knowledge gained during his study with Southern Cross University. He graduated with a Master of Professional Management in 2005, the degree completed online while he was travelling the world for Minelab, a leader in metal detecting technology. In this role, Neale advised the United Nations and many countries on the eradication of land mines and unexploded ordnance.

"It was a challenge, but I came to understand that what I was doing through Southern Cross University was also shaping the work I was doing for Minelab," says Neale. "Today, my home office still has all my material from my Masters. I use that material today in relation to Humanihut."

With offices in Australia, Europe, Saudi Arabia, North and South America, Humanihut's growth reflects both quality of product and urgency of need. Meanwhile, the accommodation and field infrastructure applications of Humanihut are expanding to include temporary hospitals, immigration centres and even penitentiaries.

Admittedly, there are hurdles ahead, particularly in relation to government and corporate discretionary spending post-pandemic. But if anyone is more than ready and equipped to convince potential clients of the enduring value of the temporary, it is Neale.

Such determination is part of his human nature.