Post-Disaster Shelters Focus of National Design Competition

March 17, 2014

As the civil war in Syria continues forcing millions of people from their homes, two southeast Kansas engineering students are designing a lightweight, easy-to-assemble shelter they hope will someday ease conditions for refugees there and around the world.

Pittsburg State University seniors Austin Leake, of Independence, Kan., and Cody Frieden, of Lamar, Mo., will enter their design next month in the national World Vision/John Brown University Disaster Shelter Design Competition in Siloam Springs, Ark.

The winning team will receive a $1,000 prize. But just as important to Leake and Frieden, the winning design will be given to World Vision to use to build shelters for Syrian refugees.

“I was a little apprehensive about competing at first,” Frieden told The Joplin Globe. “But I have a real passion for mission work. I have gone on trips with my church to Albania and did an internship in New York to help remodel homes after Hurricane Sandy. I guess with this competition, everything is coming full circle.”

The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that 6.8 million Syrians have been forced from their homes by the war, with about 2 million – three-quarters of them women and children – seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

Against that backdrop, this year’s design competition called for construction of a rapidly deployable transitional disaster shelter.

Leake noted that deployable shelters could be used in other settings, such as post-earthquake Haiti and post-tornado Joplin, Mo.

“It has to be the kind of thing that a group could ship in, people could set up quickly and easily, and it would provide immediate shelter,” he said. “Then in a year, if it isn’t needed any longer, it could be taken down and reused someplace else.”

Each team’s shelter must accommodate four people, cost a maximum $1,500 to produce, weigh less than 440 pounds and withstand an earthquake and high winds. The rules also specify that a person with no construction experience be able to assemble it and disassemble it in no more than an hour using no power tools.

Leake and Frieden created 6- by 8-foot panels out of reflective material with a high insulation value, then edged them with lightweight steel channeling. The 17-pound panels will be connected with spring-loaded hinges hinges to form a hexagonal shelter with a pitched roof.

“We designed it so no tools are necessary at all,” Frieden said as he demonstrated one of the hinges snapping into place. “We were thinking of using something like door hinges, but they have pins that can easily get lost, and you have to use a hammer to get the pins in them. We searched online and found these.”

The students will finish the exterior with a skin made of a material similar to a bedsheet in weight and texture, to which they’ll apply a weather-repellent finish.

They’ve spent less than $200 so far – well below the $1,500 limit – and are projecting that the shelter will weigh less than 225 pounds. They think it can be assembled in 20 minutes.

At the competition April 24-26, the shelters will be put through various durability tests before John Brown University students sleep in them for a night to see if they would really work for a family.

Even if Frieden and Leake don’t win the competition, they’re glad they entered.

“Any time I can design something, actually build it and be challenged, I’m happy,” Leake said.

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