When temperatures climb into triple digits, humans tend to grab a glass of water and seek refuge in some air conditioning, or at the very least, shade. The same instinct for survival is true in severe cold — we go inside and turn up the heat or light a fire, make a cup of cocoa and get ourselves warm.
But what if cover isn’t available, maybe due to bizarre weather or some other extraordinary occurrence? How could someone survive in an extreme environment?
That was the challenge put earlier this academic year to students in George Elvin’s Architecture for Extreme Environments studio, as they considered how to construct shelters that would be mobile, affordable, adaptable and accessible during an emergency or other situations well outside the norm.
“The biggest trend, really the most urgent issue, is climate change and how it may affect those living in coastal regions, deserts and other places hit hard by increasing temperatures, precipitation and storms,” said Elvin, an associate professor in the College of Architecture and Planning.
To help residents adapt, he had his students design housing built for extreme environments. The challenge was to design and build a shelter for one of the hottest places on Earth: Death Valley, where sustained temperatures hang in the triple digits for months on end. When the students were done with the classwork, the entire group headed to the valley to test their designs.
But there were a few conditions.
“It wasn’t enough to make it lightweight; you also needed to be able to build it with just one person,” said Meaghan Heinrich, a third-year student from Franklin, Indiana. That single-person construction got demonstrably more complicated, Heinrich said, when the structures left the studio and faced down the desert sun.
“It was hard because you didn’t know what 90 degrees out there would really feel like,” she said. “If there’s no wind, that’s one set of circumstances. If there’s even a 5-mile-per-hour wind, that changes the variable entirely.”
Like her classmate, Ali Hartweck found that a classroom design sometimes varies wildly from actual application.
“One of the things I thought about was making the design practical,” said Hartweck, a third-year student from Evansville, Indiana. So Hartweck leveraged a Lincoln Logs-type strategy, employing notched pieces of material that allowed the user to determine the kind of structure needed.
“This gave me so much perspective for moving forward,” she added. “It’s realizing that the more you get involved with your design, you see how something is effective or ineffective.”
Heinrich said she feels better-informed from the course too.
“You can say whatever you want in your design, but when you test it, the material may not do what you need it to do,” she said. “It was great to work with the materials, because that gets you thinking about designing things differently. We had to engage with the problems we encountered. Hands-on experience like this teaches you to try things differently, to push through a problem.”
Resilient design, Elvin said, can evolve to become something more than just shelter used in the case of an emergency. The next class will head to Mount Rainier, home to one of the highest single-year snowfalls on record, 93.5 feet. There they will test a new batch of shelters and come away with design ideas for another extreme environment.
“Every single student who has taken this studio has been really enthusiastic about the work and ideas,” Elvin said. “Trying to plan and prepare for changes that we can’t predict, showing how those designs could help real people — that puts a face on the work they are bringing to life.”