Engineering a Sustainable Home

Home Shelter Class

There are more than 15 million refugees in the world. Millions of them live in squalor with limited shelter. For two University of Rhode Island professors and their class, that’s unacceptable.

Engineering Assistant Professor Vinka Craver and geology Professor Thomas Boving recently led a course focused on designing emergency shelter for refugees.

The professors challenged students to develop affordable solutions that agencies could actually deploy. And they directed students to find designs that respected the environment and required little infrastructure. If that wasn’t challenging enough, the class tackled the directive without a single engineering student in the classroom.

Offered as part of the University’s Honors Program, the class welcomed students from across academic disciplines. The professors offered the course, “Designing Sustainable Solutions for Developing Communities” to show the intersection of engineering and global social challenges.

“When you’re trying to solve a problem in developing countries there are many social, economic and health implications of your technology,” Craver says. “Sometimes even though your technology works, it’s not culturally appropriate.”

Craver partnered with Boving, also a civil engineering professor, to offer students multiple points of view and lots of hands-on instruction.

The students turned to a previous engineering capstone design project for inspiration. Completed in 2011, the HOME Shelter project developed the shell of what an emergency shelter could look like, including its walls, floor and roof. Students in the Honors course focused on fine-tuning subsystems.

The interior design team designed a box that transforms into a chair that becomes a stepstool and then a table depending on how it’s opened. The agriculture team built a rooftop portable garden with drip irrigation and hanging planters for 5 cents each. The heating and cooling team developed inexpensive methods of retaining heat inside the shelter and cooling the exterior by reflecting sunlight. The human waste management team designed a toilet with a composting feature for less than $100.

Students received help from psychology alumnus Richard Davids (’71). He sponsored the HOME Shelter capstone project and worked with the College of Engineering to launch the latest Honors course.

“I contacted engineering Associate Dean of Research Paul Bishop to see if we might continue the project,” Davids says. “He put me in touch with Vinka and Tom. They liked the idea of giving the students a big project and then letting them run with it.”

Run with it they did. The professors say they were impressed with the student results and plan to offer a similar course in fall 2013. That course will focus on developing micro-hydropower systems for use in developing nations with limited energy sources.

Above: Students from a Fall 2012 Honors Course display their inventions that could help provide emergency shelter for refugees.