University of Cincinnati architecture students design, build new kind of disaster relief shelter

DAAP class plans NYC trip with prototype for Haiti

CINCINNATI — After helping to build houses in post-earthquake Haiti, University of Cincinnati architecture student Phil Riazzi came back to the Clifton campus with practical skills and a new understanding of the challenges of rebuilding after a disaster.

He never imagined that in his senior year as an undergrad, he’d get to work with his peers to design and build a full-scale model for a new kind of disaster shelter -- and to then show that shelter, built with Haiti in mind, this month in Cincinnati and next month in New York City.

That's the result of an 18-student studio course, “Out of Failure,” led by School of Design, Architecture, Art & Planning professors Stephen Slaughter and Brian Davies.

Not built to last
Riazzi had pitched Haiti as a study site for the course because of his trips there. He noted that more than 150,000 Haitians still live in plastic and plywood structures built as emergency housing after the 2010 earthquake. Current shelters range from plastic-covered cubes to camping tents to makeshift combinations of the two.

“What was conceived as a temporary solution has become a permanent solution,” Riazzi said.

Though the course required students to develop 45-day emergency housing solutions, Riazzi and his teammates recognized the harsh economic realities of disaster sites around the globe. Relief project funders typically only offer major financial support one time, in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.

“We had to design for something longer so it could bridge the gap,” said Riazzi, 22, a native of Dayton, Ohio.

Students concentrated on creating sustainable and reusable pieces, said team member Rebecca Doughty, 21.

“We talked a lot about FEMA trailers ,” she said, noting that the cramped, damp quarters put in place in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina contained formaldehyde, a chemical with toxic effects.

The architects chose plywood and incorporated friction joints in the rectangular plywood-framed unit to limit the pieces of hardware needed. 

They estimate a small construction team could build the shelter in four to six hours. It includes stand-alone plywood stools and reinforced bed platforms that can slide into the shelter’s walls and also double as tables.

The moveable furniture pieces could travel with families after they leave the shelters, Doughty said.

“It’s biodegradable,” Doughty said of the plywood. “It’s material that won’t make people sick.”

Providing comfort, respecting culture
For teammate Keegan Riley, 22, studying Haitian culture and researching the island’s existing architecture forced the group to be culturally sensitive to every design decision.

At every turn, they asked, “Is this dictating what the Haitians will do? Are we changing their lifestyle? Is this OK?” said Riley, who was drawn to the class because he knew family members who were impacted by Hurricane Katrina.

“The biggest challenge was how you design something culturally sensitive for a culture that is not your own,” Riazzi agreed.

The final design includes 160 square feet of living space and fits between four to eight family members. There’s a porch, a living room and a “plywood master suite,” Doughty said.

The open porch area gives family members more daytime living space; a water-resistant, breathable fabric skin encloses the sleeping spaces at night.

What the three-section shelter offers most of all, though, is flexibility.

“We didn’t want to dictate how they would use the space,” Doughty said. “We want them to hack the space.”

Rapid prototyping speeds design process
Unlike typical architecture studios, “Out of Failure” forced students to not only design structures digitally, but to turn those digital images into working models that could be tested and modified quickly.

“For four years, we’ve been doing these cool projects and they only get up to a model and a poster presentation,” Riley said. “The whole reality of this project is my favorite part.”

His classmates, and professors, concur.

“The really great thing is the notion of prototype,” said architecture professor Stephen Slaughter. “Unlike most architecture design studios, where it’s hypothetical, this is an opportunity where what they are developing is for the real world.”

Doughty said being able to create multiple prototypes and make adjustments to working models attracted her to the course.

“We can undergo two years worth of physical design prototypes in a matter of weeks,” she said.

Although the class started with three teams working on three different shelter projects—one for America, one for Jordan and one for Haiti—the class eventually voted to build the Haitian model full-scale and send it to the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York in May.

The design for the U.S. shelter focused on a Katrina-like recovery. It featured flexible pods that could be installed atop stadium seats, like in the Superdome, to increase privacy and keep masses of refugees off the field space.

The design for Syrian refugees in Jordan allows for a free flow of air between sections

divided by movable wooden screens.

As students determined which one design they could build and promote as a class, they took into account cost for building and the potential for actual use. After presentations and a class vote, the students chose to construct the Haitian shelter, which can be constructed for less than $10,000.

“This is an appropriate way of leveraging design intelligence to solve a pressing humanitarian need,” Slaughter said. “ICFF makes a very good end goal.”

First, though, class members will work together to create a partial model of the shelter for the annual DAAPWorks , a showcase for the college’s graduates that starts April 22.

Creativity as a tool for change
The Haiti shelter won’t be the first disaster relief design developed at UC. “Out of Failure” evolved from two years of seminar coursework in the college overseen by Slaughter and interior design professor Brian Davies.

The concept evolved from the colleagues’ interest in collaborating and exposing students to work that that made practice out of theory, Davies said. Choosing the design focus allowed the instructors a world of creative opportunity.

“The most beautiful, most destitute, and most powerful places are equally vulnerable,” said Davies.

By dedicating more than 5,000 collective work hours to design for the destitute places overlooked by mainstream architecture, students made progress that can be built upon in the future.

Doughty, who lobbied to have the three-credit-hour seminar turned into a six-credit-hour studio course, still takes issue with the studio’s inclusion of the word “failure.”

“We’re providing a solution,” she said. “The current tent system provides shelter. We’re looking to provide community and a sense of stability.”

Davies said he’s impressed with the students’ dedication to the studio and their willingness to continue to work on the shelter project after the semester ends and they graduate.

“Everyone has seen the potential for their creativity to have an impact,” he said.

For example, students who originally worked on other shelter designs are building the full-size Haitian model and planning to travel with it to New York.

Classmate Lydia Witte, who starts work at a residential architectural firm in South Carolina in June, started off on the team building a shelter for a Katrina-like crisis. Now, she’s leading the charge to raise awareness and funds to support the full-scale Haitian shelter construction via online crowdfunding platform Indiegogo .

“There is a real possibility of making this into a shelter that can help people across many different cultures,” Witte said. “This is a mass-producible, viable solution that can be reused.”

Editor’s Note: Elissa Yancey works as a Journalism professor at the University of Cincinnati.


Follow Yancey on Twitter .

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