Cody Howard
School of Engineering

'Tiny house' prototype designed for temporary disaster relief

Thu, 07/05/2018

LAWRENCE — The hurricanes that hit Texas and Puerto Rico in 2017 left thousands of people homeless, at least temporarily. Now students in the University of Kansas School of Engineering are working to design and build new “tiny homes” that will provide safe, comfortable shelter to families that survive such storms.

Jessica Gjerde, an architectural engineering major from Ankeny, Iowa, is leading the team of student engineers from IHAWKe, the umbrella organization for KU Engineering’s Diversity & Women’s programs.

“We came up with this idea after the hurricanes hit Houston and Puerto Rico,” she said. “It's a house that could be easily built — prefabricated panels and systems — to be installed and shipped somewhere after a disaster.”

The process began in October with a two-day IHAWKe-a-thon, when nearly two dozen students in a range of disciplines — including architectural engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering and information technology — came together to brainstorm possible engineering responses to the devastating storms.

“This was one of the ideas that came up,” said Andrew Williams, associate dean for diversity, equity & inclusion. “The fact they can build a real-world solution to a problem ... it's important for students to see they can make an impact with their engineering degree.”

Gjerde said the design process continued with a core group of 5-7 students meeting evenings during the school year. In March, a group of six IHAWKe students traveled to Houston to meet with students at a KIPP charter school.

“Our IHAWKe students were able to observe and learn first-hand the lasting impact of Hurricane Harvey and gained insight into the trauma and hardships some people are still facing because of it,” Williams wrote in a blog post documenting the journey.

The students have developed a “tiny house” design intended to accommodate a small family for a short term. The proposal stands 12 feet tall, covering an area of 8 by 16 feet. It includes a small kitchen with a pump sink — it’s expected there would be no access to running water — as well as a bathroom with a composting toilet. The loft areas would be for sleeping and storage. The design also calls for six windows, for which Gjerde is seeking donors.

“We’re looking for people who could step up and help with that part of the project. Getting a donation for the windows for our prototype would help us save time and cut our costs,” Gjerde said.

That entire living unit sounds like a tight fit, Gjerde acknowledged, but it’s better than homelessness or even some public shelters.

"It wouldn't be something they'd spend all day in,” she said. “It's somewhere to sleep and have a place to call their own."

The goal now, Williams said, is to build a model of the house on campus — then travel to Puerto Rico next spring, perhaps, and build a model there. Ultimately, the idea is that kits for the house would be ready for easy assembly as soon as major storms pass through an area, “kind of like an Ikea package, where it's modular and easy to put together.”

Gjerde said the project was also helping her and other students get practical knowledge of real-life design projects.

“Since I'm architectural engineer, I'm definitely getting hands-on experience,” she said.

“We're obviously learning along the way. We don't know everything about a tiny house and how to build it. It's definitely applying things I've learned in my classes. It's nice to be creative and explore — we didn't have boundaries for this process.”

For more information about the project, or to inquire about donating windows, contact Jessica Gjerde.

IHAWKe (Indigenous, Hispanic, African American, Women, KU Engineering) is the umbrella organization for KU Engineering’s Diversity and Women’s programs. IHAWKe’s theme is to recruit and engage students to become team-oriented innovators who use engineering and computing to change the world, connect with others, and conquer their classes. IHAWKe student groups include the American Indian Science & Engineering Society, National Society of Black Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, Society of Women Engineers and KU Women in Computing.

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