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CAMD Faculty Research Shelter Systems to Help Mitigate Refugee Housing Crisis


Peter Wiederspahn (design left) and Janos Stone (design right) explore refugee housing options

Two CAMD faculty members have been researching emergency shelter systems that could help mitigate the refugee housing crisis, which has left tens of thousands of people across the world stranded without basic shelter. Especially during emergencies, migrants are arriving to lands, towns, and cities that are already overwhelmed with homelessness – and where livable housing is challenging to find, even for short stays. In response, Peter Wiederspahn, Associate Professor in the School of Architecture, and Janos Stone, Lecturer in the Department of Art and Design, are exploring options for temporary housing that can help meet the immediate needs of groups, which so often include vulnerable children and babies, displaced by natural or human-produced disasters. As their designs take shape, both Peter and Janos are using sheet material assembled through repetitive folding, and are exercising their specific skillsets and expertise to come up with creative ways to improve this one important aspect of a much larger world-wide issue.

For months, Peter has been conducting design research and prototyping for a short-to-medium term shelter system made of corrugated plastic called “Flat/Fold,” which aims to improve the favorable aspects of tents (which are currently the best rapid response shelter option), while also rectifying their deficiencies. He worked with a CAMD Graduate Assistant, Pat Scullion, to go through the initial stages of his research, from identifying the material to figuring out how the pieces will come together, and determining what design elements should be included to help add extra protection and comfort. Similar to tents, Flat/Fold is lightweight, can be easily transported, and is quickly deployable.

“We developed the Flat/Fold design by considering the interaction of material and form, with the goal of having it performing a certain task” explained Peter. “In this case, we needed a material and a shape that could withstand the elements in order to provide immediate and easy-to-assemble safety for groups during an emergency situation.”

The Flat/Fold design features a thermal cavity that provides much greater human comfort than tents in diverse climatic conditions. It is designed to expel hot air in hot climates and trap hot air in cold climates for significantly improved internal thermal comfort.


Flat/Fold in-progress prototype.


Most recent Flat/Fold prototype.

“To augment the thermal properties of Flat/Fold, this cavity can be filled with indigenous materials that could be found at any particular disaster site to act as insulation,” Peter continued. “This could include sand and dirt to create a thermal mass, or it could be grasses, leaves, or plastic bags to provide air-trapping insulation.”

While the design itself is both functional and dynamic, it is also easy to build and break down, adding to its convenience during situations where time is precious and often limited. Right after an emergency situation hits, Flat/Fold (as its name describes), is folded out like a cardboard box to create the volume of the shelter. Then, once the emergency situation has dissipated, the shelter can be easily folded flat again for transport away – to save and reuse.

 

Sketches show the transportable, foldable nature of the shelter.

While Peter’s design is intended for weeks to months-long stays, Janos is exploring very short-term housing solutions that would be ideal for a few days to a week or so. His design is constructed from gypsum board, an inexpensive and flat packable material, with the intent of creating temporary refugee housing that could provide safety for families with young children. The gypsum board that Janos uses is impregnated with a water proofant.

After pitching his idea to National Gypsum Company, who were interested in learning more about the unique ways its material can help people, Janos started by examining and understanding the properties of the material. While most people recognize gypsum as being used exclusively for walls and ceilings in buildings, the material is quite unique and more complex than one might imagine. Gypsum board is inexpensive (each housing unit would only cost around $5), and since Janos’s design applies thick origami folding principles, it also requires no adhesives or fasteners – making it quick to assemble in an emergency situation either by a person or someday, a robot. In fact, due to the simplicity of the design, it can be automatically assembled by a robot in under one minute. This is something Janos will continue to explore, especially since National Gypsum is very interested in how robots can be used in their industry.

 

“My ultimate goal is to build a refugee housing structure that would be safe, stable, and have enough longevity to adequately protect and provide shelter for children from sun and weather and keep them out of the sight of those who meant them harm,” explained Janos. “While I started by exploring the material itself, I quickly began looking at options for what shape and form it could take. I explored how much to cut the board in a way that requires zero adhesives and mechanical fasteners, while also using as little material as possible to keep costs low and assembly simple.”

 


Examples of design testing.

Janos has been working on prototyping his design at Autodesk’s Build Space, where he has been able to bring his ideas to life through fabrication. The design he is now fine-tuning features a triangular shape with two cavities that provide extra stability as well as added protection and privacy. The structure is long and multidimensional enough, with the two cavities, that an adult of average height could comfortably lie down – and still have room for a child.


Testing out the prototype at Autodesk’s Build Space.

Both Peter and Janos are at the point in their research where they are now testing their life-sized designs with people and elements to continue to make improvements and prepare the shelter for various unanticipated forces. We look forward to seeing their ideas continue to unfold.