Purdue students invent innovative, weather-resistant shelter for disaster victims

March 23, 2010

Rafael Smith sweeps snow from the roof of Uber Shelter, the award-winning disaster shelter he first conceived as an industrial design student at Purdue. (Purdue University photo/Ted Schellenberger)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A team of Purdue University students has turned an undergraduate design project into a sturdy, portable, spacious, easily assembled shelter for homeless families suffering in the aftermath of disasters like the earthquake in Haiti.

Rafael Smith's Uber Shelter packs nearly 200 square feet of living space in a multi-tiered shelter. Smith, an industrial design graduate from Purdue's College of Liberal Arts, said the shelter would be perfect for people huddled under sheets or mired in the swampy camps into which hundreds of thousands of Haitians are crammed.

"Uber Shelter gives a dignified temporary home to people enduring crisis," Smith said. "The stilt system gets people well above the sewage, mud, rubbish, insects, snakes, rodents and parasites that plague these victims around the world."

Smith, now working in Chicago, won an International Design Excellence Award and then kudos from The New York Times for a shelter that can be easily transported to disaster areas and erected with just two wrenches. It covers a small footprint, provides standing room and privacy, and is made of recyclable materials. Shipping in a 4 foot by 8 foot by 2 foot package, the stilted shelter can be built on hillsides, a useful capability in crowded, steep terrain like that in Port au Prince.

"Putting one's education quickly to work to immediately improve the lives of millions of the most desperate people in the world is an absolute dream come true," said Purdue engineering graduate student Josh Messmer, who helped Smith design the prototype and continues to tweak it to make it stronger, safer, lighter and more affordable.

Since erecting the prototype in his parents' Indianapolis horse pasture in November, Smith has received thousands of dollars in online donations to help bring Uber Shelter to those who need it. Investors have called from New York, and aid agencies on the ground in Haiti have inquired about purchasing thousands of units as a season of torrential rain bears down on those victims.

"We're looking for partners who are as committed as we are to helping destitute people," said Brad Milius, a Purdue management alumnus who serves as the Uber Shelter Project development director while pursuing a graduate degree in nonprofit management at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Smith was recently selected to attend the Unreasonable Institute, a "boot camp" where he will be trained and mentored by a large team of fellow humanitarian-minded entrepreneurs. There in Boulder, Colo., Smith will present Uber Shelter to scores of angel investors.

"This is not a profit-making endeavor for me," Smith said. "My business model must have the lowest possible overhead to make it as affordable as possible to the millions of people who need this shelter around the world in places like Haiti, Darfur, Chile, China, Taiwan and Turkey."

Uber Shelter has already survived 60 mph winds and a snowy Indiana winter. Smith will live in the shelter intermittently until he travels to Colorado this summer for the institute. While living in the shelter, Smith will seek ways to further improve its ergonomics, portability, durability and cost.

"This shelter is vastly superior to a tent, but I won't be completely satisfied until it comes even closer to or surpasses a tent's cost," he said.

Writer: Jim Schenke, 765-494-6262, jschenke@purdue.edu 

Sources:   Rafael Smith, rafael@ubershelter.org

                   Josh Messmer, josh@ubershelter.org

                   Brad Milius, brad@ubershelter.org

Related Web sites:
New York Times, "Shelter for the Displaced"

Note to Journalists: For more information, B-Roll, sound bites, photographs and drawings, contact Jim Schenke at 765-494-6262, jschenke@purdue.edu. A video about Uber Shelter is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Gb6y6ikiTE