The student-created structure that's being unveiled Monday is going to New Orleans, to become a demonstration project in an area of the city left barren by Hurricane Katrina.
"We know that someone will actually be using this, and it will actually go to some good," says Ryan Shortridge, one of the students working on the project. "So there has been a lot of heart in the design throughout the entire process. It's been a big push to get it done."
Shortridge and his fellow architecture students hope their project will, someday, be used the world over.
Right now it looks like a rust-colored boxcar, with a platform that rolls out from one end. But, drawings and design animation tell a different story.
This is going to be a self-contained facility that, in cases of a natural disaster, doesn't need to be hooked up to a sewer system or electricity.
Dubbed a "clean hub," the former shipping container can be trucked into an affected area, and set up quickly. It will produce its own power and water supply, with an aim of providing basic sanitation for disaster victims worldwide.
"The rooftop has a rainwater collection on top of it, so then it goes inside where there is a filter and a rainwater storage tank," says Ryan Shortridge. "On the inside there is a bathroom that rolls out, with a composting toilet in it, and solar panels attach to the bathroom that will provide the power for the filtering system and the toilet. So, it is a self-contained water and sanitation center."
Shortridge has been working on the toilet facilities. Another student, Jeff Maas, is working on the rainwater collection system, which is a canvas awning that folds out and attaches to the roof of the container.
Maas says building the facility from scratch has been a challenge.
"The first week we started, we were all working pretty well. But, it turns out that one of the groups changed their design, which affected every other group. So we spent the second week redoing everything we did the first week," says Maas.
This prototype, built by senior U of M architecture students, will be set up in the devestated Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans.
"There are a couple of houses around that aren't sitting on their foundations. But it is a pretty much empty six- or seven-block area with no trees around," says Maas. "So the idea is to put this in and to get the community to start coming back -- have a community garden, a community space. And it will also function as a performing space."
“I always say I want to change the world with architecture, and this is definitely a way to do it.”U of M architecture student Anna Christianson
The clean hub idea came from instructors John Dwyer and Tom Westbrook. Westbrook says shipping containers are cheap and readily available.
"Anywhere there's a disaster there are containers around, so there would be a few pieces of technology that would need to be put in," says Westbrook. "But these things could be built anywhere in the world and immediately deployed."
Instructor John Dwyer says the clean hub project was born after a semester of talking about slums and social issues, and how architecture can alleviate human suffering.
With New Orleans as a backdrop, the instructors and students hope this project is an example of how to quickly get clean water, sanitation and power to people who need it.
Dwyer says officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are interested in seeing the project.
"Hopefully it will succeed, in that it will create some political will," says Dwyer. "That is one of the big things we've been telling the students throughout the semester, is that you're not really designing a building. Either you're designing social equity or you're designing political will -- something to create a catalyst for another change."
Dwyer adds that he's not preaching a particular political philosophy.
"It's not my role to bend their political views, or their social or ethical views. So I sort of try and present them with the information, and let them design with it as they would," Dwyer says. "Within the action of the students, I would say there are a lot of positive affirmations that they are understanding the impact of this. And the most important thing is what role, as designers, they can play in it."
Student Anna Christianson says while other architecture students are drawing designs on paper for their final projects this semester, her classmates turned their design into a reality, and it left a lasting impression on her.
"I really gained a global understanding and awareness of how one-third of our world lives, without clean water and a place to use the restroom, which are really two core issues," says Christianson. "You can see anywhere around the world it is a problem, and in this country too. I always say I want to change the world with architecture, and so, this is definitely a way to do it."
The clean hub container will be shipped to New Orleans in June, to become the centerpiece of a community garden.