Portable shelter: a class project gets personal

March 21, 2008

Julio Torres's creation looks something like a cross between a snail shell and a covered wagon — a hinged platform covered by insulated cloth stretched over wooden ribs. You wouldn’t think so at first glance, but this unique form is intended to be a homeless shelter — not a brick and mortar building struggling to keep beds available, but a portable and efficient way to give people in need a warm space of their own. "It's a small space," says Torres (B.Arch ’10), "but it's a private space. The shelter is designed so people can sit up in the center. I'm 6 ft. tall, and I can sit in the center and read." By lifting up one end of the fabric covering, a person can climb inside where there's space to curl up, sit upright, and even stretch out a little. The bottom platform sits on wooden rails, something essential when available space could be uneven, wet, or full of broken glass. It is lightweight, insulated, and built out of cheap, abundant materials — plywood, canvas, egg crate foam, and nylon. The real trick of Torres’s shelter, however, comes when the hinged platform is folded in half and, in a matter of seconds, goes from being a shelter to being a backpack, easily set up and transported. The project began as a class assignment at SUNY Morrisville, where Torres, a native of the Dominican Republic, got an associate's degree in architectural graphics and design before transferring to Cornell in fall 2007. Torres and fellow classmates presented the shelter at a conference of the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program (CSTEP), a state-funded program that gives grants to students entering science and technology fields. It was well received, but was disqualified. (“Technically,” says Torres, “we were never invited.”) Since transferring to Cornell, Torres has been working on a redesign of the shelter using newfound knowledge about fabrication and materials. "You learn all these things in class, you can apply it to anything you do," he says. "It was great to be able to redesign this with the knowledge that I have gained at Cornell." In his redesign, Torres has lightened the shelter, improved its insulation, and has begun to see exactly how feasible it could be to produce large numbers of his design at minimal cost. "I only had a budget of $100 to build this, but if you mass-produce something you go to the manufacturer of the materials and get a discount. I could make these for way under $50,” he says.  With his prototype almost complete, Torres is preparing to field test his design in some of the harshest conditions it might be asked to face — a cold night in upstate New York. "I want to test it myself in the cold weather. I'm going to sleep in it and take measurements of the temperature inside, then compare it to the temperature outside," says Torres The data he collects, along with photos and documentation, will be presented again at this year's CSTEP conference. As for the prototype, Torres wants it to go immediately to work as it was intended. "I'm going to take it to an area in Ithaca where there are homeless people and give it to someone who can use it. In the future I'd like to build more and give them out. It's a fun project for me, and I feel good about doing it," says Torres.

By Steve Rokitka

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