U.Va. Student Team Creates Transitional Disaster Recovery Shelter Design, Prototype

March 24, 2010 — After Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, hundreds of thousands of displaced residents were forced to live in transitional housing. Recovery workers faced logistical and construction challenges because of the high demand for the shelters and limited number of volunteer builders, spurring architects to seek an improved approach and product.

Through a Jefferson Public Citizens program grant, two teams of University of Virginia students are working to improve quality and availability of transitional shelters for future natural disasters.

The students have partnered with the Building Goodness Foundation, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit organization that took teams of volunteers to Pearlington, Miss. in the wake of Katrina to build shelters for families that lost everything in the storm.

"We wanted to elaborate on these simple shelters to create a more sustainable, durable, versatile and comfortable sheltering system," third-year architecture student Sara Harper said.

Harper led a five-student team that won a Jefferson Public Citizens grant for the 2009-10 school year. The team refined a design for the shelter that had been developed by a fourth-year architecture studio class in spring 2009.

She and three other students won another JPC grant this semester for the 2010-11 year. They plan to travel to Pearlington this summer to interview residents about their experiences and see the conditions of the town today, then construct a 450-square-foot prototype shelter in a hangar at the University-owned Milton Airport this summer.

The shelter is modeled to suit the Gulf Coast climate, taking into account solar orientation, temperatures and humidity levels. The team hopes the design can be adapted for global use in the future.

"We'd hope that design is flexible enough so it can be adjusted for anywhere in the world," Harper said.

The opportunity to work on a project full-time over the summer gives students a sense of how the architecture discipline can positively affect the built environment in dire situations. "I've learned so much about the design field and how things get built," Harper said.

The grants enable the teams to perform a highly concentrated study, allowing focus that the team wouldn't have otherwise.

"I'm grateful and excited about this continued support," said architecture professor Anselmo Canfora, who also serves as the director for Initiative reCOVER.

Canfora advises the teams, and Jonathan Coble will serve as a graduate mentor for the 2010-11 team.

Harper, third-year architecture students Sam Pepper and Assad Abboud, and fourth-year architecture students Tyler Jenkins and Daniel Mowery are finishing up the 2009-10 project.

The 2010-11 team is comprised of third-year architecture students Harper, Sally Lee, Nathan Parker and Lauren Thompson.

JPC students have been active in competitions based on the project. Last summer, Harper, Mowery and Canfora competed in the Architecture for Humanity Classroom Challenge  The team adapted the panelized transitional disaster recovery shelter system to a classroom application and finished the international competition as semifinalists.

The 2009 JPC team and graduate architecture student Tom Hogge worked on an exhibition titled "Flatpack City" at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City last fall. The exhibit consisted of a digitally fabricated frame system and a group of panels showing the development of the transitional disaster recovery shelter design and fabrication and the emerging technologies that they have incorporated in the design.

Harper has also participated in various conferences and presentations, allowing her to share the team's experiences.

"It's a great way to use our design skills and energy and put it toward real-world benefits," Harper said.

After the prototype construction this summer, work will continue on the transitional disaster recovery shelters. In the future, Canfora hopes the prototype will be tested and enter the production phase.

– By Laura Hoffman