BottleBricks: how a student design could help refugees

Biomimicry Global Design Challenge

This summer master students of the Master’s programme Bio Inspired Innovation were in the finals of the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge. In this global challenge students and young professionals create bio-inspired solutions that align with both nature and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The student team of Utrecht University came up with BottleBricks, to address the growing problem of lack of adequate housing in refugee camps. Inspired by insulating techniques from moths and ants they use the concept of stagnant air and light reflection to come up with a clever idea. BotlleBricks stacks empty water bottles into an insulating bottle-house’ around the existing refugee shelters. As of 14 September they are following the so-called Launchpad, to turn their concept into a start-up.

Master student Vera den Besten wrote a report about the challenge and their team effort.

Biomimicry Global Design Challenge


As part of the Master’s programme Bio Inspired Innovation I participated in the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge with my team of fellow BII students; Bastiaan Ilmer, Florence Hunnekens, Gloria Carta, Laila Kestem and Pieter Smit. The challenge is organised by the Biomimicry Institute and is meant for students and young professionals around the globe. Participating gave us the opportunity to not only study, but also practice biomimicry design. For those of you who don’t know this term; “Biomimicry is the practice of applying lessons from nature to the invention of healthier, more sustainable technologies for people. Biomimetic designers focus on understanding, learning from, and emulating the strategies used by living things, with the intention of creating designs and technologies that are sustainable”. So we learned to use biomimicry to create bio-inspired solutions that are aligned both with nature and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We came up with ‘BottleBricks’, to address the growing problem of lack of adequate housing in refugee camps.

The problem

One of the world’s biggest refugee crises is currently taking place on the Greek Aegean islands. The refugee camp on the island of Lesvos, called Moria, was originally set-up to shelter around 2.200 people, but is currently overflowing with over 20,000 refugees. The other refugee camps are on the islands of Samos and Kos. Moria recently made it to the news because a big fire burned down large parts of the camp, making the topic of shelter even more pressing.

The Greek camps were never meant for long-term use, but due to Europe’s new asylum laws, people often have to stay there for several months or even years. With more refugees arriving every day, an unbearable situation has arisen. The interviews and questionnaires we had with refugees and volunteers from different help organisations on Lesvos, have identified lack of shelter as one of the major problems. Adequate shelter should provide security and protection from the cold winds, frequent rain and thunderstorms in winter, with average temperatures below 10 degrees Celcius. The climate during the summer months is equally challenging with burning sunlight and temperatures up to 38 degrees Celcius. The refugees often lack financial means and/or access to building materials to remedy the situation. They have to live in makeshift shelters built from low quality products, like sheets and wood sticks, materials with little insulating properties. The immediate and long-term physical and psychological impacts lack of proper shelter have on the refugees is a bitter side effect. Providing relief in this situation was therefore our main focus point.

Inspiration from nature

To find a solution for the refugees, we looked at different organisms in nature that create resilient, insulated structures to protect themselves from hot, cold, rainy and windy climates. Nature offers very diverse thermoregulation strategies. We learnt from organisms that either use stagnant air for insulation, or physical structures to reflect light and heat. Trapped air is a very common insulation strategy amongst many organisms to protect from both hot and cold climates. Many animals for example have a specific type of fur to do this. However, not all organisms can create a stable body temperature when exposed to wind. Moths do have a solution for this. The silk cocoons of moth species are enclosed structures that prevent stagnant air from escaping, even in windy and cold conditions. Another thermoregulatory strategy we implemented in our concept is the use of a physical structure to reflect light. Saharan silver ants have a particular triangular hair structure that enables the ant to reflect light very efficiently. The ridges allow a large amount of light to come into and out of the hairs, thereby maximising light reflection. By integrating both strategies, stagnant air and light reflection, we came up with the idea of creating BottleBricks.

BottleBricks isolation - Visualisation stacking bottle pillars and forming a bottle house around a shelter
Visualization of how bottle-pillars can be stacked and form a bottle-house around existing shelter.

Our design solution

Each refugee receives one water bottle per day in Moria. When they have finished the water, most of the bottles end up as trash in the camp. We made a design for a special type of water bottle, one with some extra features that prevents it from turning into waste. Our bottles can namely be used by refugees as bricks to build a ‘bottle-house’ around their existing shelter. Therefore we named the design BottleBricks!

Bottles that are covered with a cap are excellent examples of enclosed structures that can trap stagnant air inside. Imagine a tent covered by empty bottles; it would be an amazing insulative layer against outside heat or cold. We therefore designed bottles that can be connected to each other through screwing the neck of one bottle into the bottom of another. Multiple bottles connected in this way create bottle-pillars. When horizontally placed and stacked, multiple bottle-pillars will create a structure that can be build around a tent.

Inspired by the Saharan Silver ant, we covered 70 percent of the bottle with ridges. This ridged surface will serve as the light reflecting side in summer. When this reflective side is facing the sun, the shelter will remain cooler. In winter the bottle-pillars can be turned so that the smooth surface is faced towards the sun. The sun will not be reflected but instead absorbed, heating up the stagnant air inside, and will thus make the shelter warmer. The second function of the ridges will be to make the stacking of the horizontal pillars possible. This stacking mechanism creates a stable construction with tightly packed bottles in order to protect the inside from rain. When our bottles, made from 100% recycled PET, replace the single-used bottles in the camps, refugees can improve their shelter and the amount of trash in the camps will be reduced.


We are currently following the Launchpad of the BGDC which means in the coming 10 weeks we are learning how to turn our idea into an actual start-up. We are therefore looking for experts in the fields of bottle production, materials and refugee aid. If you are, or know, someone that would like to help us please contact us via You can also follow us on Instagram: BottleBricksnl.

More: watch the video of BottleBricks