Dismantled, the Über Shelter looks like a large gray gurney. But this compact pile of aluminum unfolds into a two-story home, complete with lights, stove, porch and a small refrigerator. Rafael Smith, a senior in the industrial design program at Purdue University, designed the Über Shelter for his undergraduate thesis project.
On a vacation in Manila the summer before he began the project, he was shocked by the crushing living conditions of those in poverty; when he got home, he began researching the architecture of shelters around the world. With no previous knowledge of refugee camps, he sought the advice of doctors, policy makers aid workers and a Sudanese refugee he met online.
In his computer-generated design, which was a finalist at the 2008 International Design Excellence Awards for students, Mr. Smith focuses on fixing some of the problems that have plagued large refugee camps. The model is meant to reduce sprawl. Because the shelter can hold two families, one on each floor, the camp size can be reduced by half, and he equips each home with solar-powered electricity. The unit, which unfurls to roughly the size of a truck, is made of lightweight recyclable aluminum, so it can be cheaply transported by car or parachuted in to a disaster area. Mr. Smith plans to refine his design before thinking about patents.
Combining a melting unit, mixer, extruder and cutting unit, the machine can produce – in an hour – a half-metre-wide panel 120 metres long. Depending on the exact mix of plastics and fibres, as well as the thickness of the panel, the composite can have varying amounts of flexibility, weight and insulating qualities, making it adaptable to a variety of construction needs. Colouring can be included in the panel’s plastic mix at the time of fabrication, so there is no need to paint the walls after construction, saving homeowners time and money. Padrós says a panel of even greater strength can be created by using a honeycomb or earthen filler, as well as vegetable matter, to create a sandwich of two panels.The composite panels are easier to handle than lumber or brick, and much better than conventional materials in an earthquake or other natural catastrophe. Combined with special metal connectors, “it will bend but not break”, Padrós says. And if a house does collapse, he says, someone is much more likely to survive if the walls are lighter in weight than conventional materials. And using the panels will help spare the nation’s forests. “Because we’re using fibres that are completely renewable, we can stop using lumber for construction. That’s very important in Paraguay because we’ve already reduced our original forest to less than ten per cent of Paraguay’s territory,” Zaldívar points out. “We’re running out of trees.”