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Engineering Students Build Prototype for $300 House Project in Haiti

By Anna Fiorentino
July 2013 • CoolStuff

Last term, students in Professor Vicki May’s “Structural Analysis” class designed and built components for a prototype that could influence The $300 House project designs for the neediest families displaced by the 2010 earthquake in Fond des Blancs, Haiti. The construction team will be led by Thayer School of Engineering lecturer Jack Wilson and Geisel School of Medicine professor Dr. Peter Wright in collaboration with the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation.

“We are also in the process of establishing a partnership with FOKAL, a Haitian non-profit organization establishing the first university level Environmental Education Program in Haiti,” says Wilson, who recently returned from Haiti after beginning construction on two prototype houses designed by faculty, students and others both in Haiti and at the 2012 Prototype Design Workshop. “FOKAL is interested in working with us on establishing a design and research laboratory as part of their program that would also be focused on innovation and sustainability in construction materials and practices.” Meanwhile, Wilson is working with Haitian community leaders to identify needy families to occupy the houses.

Thayer School has been working with Dartmouth’s Studio Art Department, Geisel School of Medicine, Tuck School of Business and Center for Health Care Delivery Science on the $300 House Project since the concept originated in a Harvard Business Review blog by Tuck professor Vijay Govindarajan and Marketing Consultant Christian Sarkar in 2010.

May’s class was able to complete a bamboo roof, a bamboo awning, an inexpensive solar panel that provides lighting, and a rain collection and filtering system for clean water. They built walls with a compressed earth block machine that they also constructed.


The student team's bamboo roof and frame.

“The students looked into renting or buying a machine, but [it] would be difficult to modify and the team really wanted to try out some innovative designs,” says May. “They spent tons of time building it in the machine shop and testing different molds. We now have our own compressed earth block press and several innovative molds, plus more than 20 test blocks.”

The class tested their systems and materials on a shake table that simulates an earthquake. The designs took into account not only possible earthquakes, but also deforestation, and hurricanes.

“Haitian people can design their own houses but we want to give them advice about building them better,” says May. “Many of the emergency houses provided in Haiti are temporary tents or plywood with little emphasis on the culture.” Houses in Haiti, mostly used for sleeping, are typically only one or two rooms and about twice the size of the one May’s class built. They have large covered porches where the family spends time out of the sun and they have separate outdoor kitchens and latrines. While the cost is not exactly $300, that target was set as an aspiration.

“The goal of the house project is to generate innovative ideas for affordable housing that could work in Haiti while providing real learning opportunities for students,” says May.

Tags: environment

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