A room of requirement

Rice Building Workshop’s Emergency Core, designed for disaster relief, gets a workout

As a home-not-far-from-home, the Rice Building Workshop (RBW) Emergency Core served its purpose well for Claire O’Connor and Colin Ward.

The portable disaster relief prototype designed and built by Rice School of Architecture (RSA) students got a good test the week of March 18 when the two fifth-year students set up the platform-based unit in the backyard of their house a few miles from campus, near state Highway 288.

The students didn’t sleep inside, but they put the structure’s shower, composting toilet and solar power supply through their first real workout.

“We’re taking showers in it and using the toilet,” O’Connor said a few days into the trial run. “Once you get used to the chill of taking an outside shower with unheated water, it’s nice.”

Colin Ward and Claire O'Connor

“We hear the birds chirping a little bit,” said Ward of his experience. “But mostly we hear 18-wheelers roaring by.”

RSA student designers Scott Key, Sam Brisendine, Chris Duffel and Erin Ruhl intend the Emergency Core to be easily deployed in disaster scenarios, when people forced out of their homes need quick access to basic facilities with some privacy.

“There’s a gap between the time of a natural disaster and when semipermanent shelters are available, and this would provide an option other than a more centralized emergency shelter,” Key said. “Instead of an Astrodome to serve many people, this is a way to decentralize emergency disaster relief. This would allow people to remain fairly autonomous.”

O’Connor, a New Jersey native, knows how important that could be. “After Hurricane Sandy, my parents were without power for two weeks,” she said. “This kind of thing could have been helpful for a lot of people there if it were deployed on a grand scale.”

Claire O'Connor

Claire O'Connor demonstrates a device for purifying water for drinking, part of the Emergency Core project. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Key said the goal is to be able to deliver truckloads of Emergency Cores to disaster sites within hours. The cores can be carried by two people and are easy to deploy, which Ward confirmed from experience. “I had set it up once with Scott, so I knew how everything was arranged, but once we actually began laying out the pieces, it was really intuitive. The tent part was very easy.”

The “tent” is better than what’s sold at a sporting goods store. It’s made of heavy-duty sailcloth supported by fiberglass-and-shock cord poles and packed into a cube that also contains the toilet, shower, a flexible solar panel and a filter for drinking water. The cube unfolds into an adjustable 6-by-9-foot aluminum and fiberglass grid that keeps the structure up to a foot off the ground. Inside, the space is separated into two rooms by a zippered barrier. Pockets for storage are sewn into the sailcloth.

O’Connor and Ward were documenting their experience with the shelter through a journal, photos and “anything we can think of that will be useful,” O’Connor said.

“For instance, they didn’t really think about a place to put toilet paper. And we need a little shelf for our toothbrushes,” she said. “These are the things we take for granted that come up when people are actually using it.”

Colin Ward

Colin Ward demonstrates a portable shower unit packaged with the Emergency Core, designed by Rice architecture students as a shelter that can be quickly deployed in a disaster. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

The design team took the prototype to New Orleans in January to the International Disaster Conference and Expo, where they got feedback on the core and were also encouraged to develop the platform structure as a separate product.

The Emergency Core is typical of RBW projects that are developed by many students over a number of years. The current team is building upon designs by graduates Kelly Barlow ’11 and Peter Stone, a fifth-year student at RSA. “This is typical of all RBW projects, where successive generations of students come aboard a continuing project and push the ideas farther along,” said RBW Director Danny Samuels ’71.

The project is an extension of the core concept pioneered by RBW and put into practice in the Core House and the InHouse/OutHouse, both also designed and built by Rice students and located at Project Row Houses in Houston’s Third Ward.

“Our projects often result in full-scale prototypes that are used in the community while providing research and learning opportunities for students,” said RBW Associate Director Nonya Grenader ’94. She and Samuels are professors in the practice of architecture at Rice.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.