With just $100 worth of plywood and screws, almost anyone can build a shelter known as a Hexayurt that can last three years and possibly even withstand a hurricane. The simple DIY structure could be a critical temporary solution for some of the estimated 1 million or more people left homeless in quake-torn Haiti.
Aid agencies have distributed around 10,000 tents to Haiti so far, according to to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), one of the dozens of charity groups in Haiti focused on emergency shelter. But 200,000 are needed, and even then, the tents won’t stand up to the weather.
“Tents are a three to five month option in the midst of the dry season,” said Vincent Houver, IOM Chief of Mission in Haiti, in a recent press release. “But emergency and transitional shelter solutions sufficiently durable to last at least two years need to be found before the heavy rains arrive in a few months.”
Tents do have the benefit of a supply chain already in place that makes it easy to ramp up production when disaster strikes, and they can be transported to remote sites and set up relatively quickly. But they run around $300 to $400 and only last about a year, in good weather.
“Once those tents are shredded, people are homeless again,” said Vinay Gupta, a self-taught risk management consultant and inventor of the Hexayurt.
In addition to being longer lived, the Hexayurt is both easy to assemble and cheap. I built my own for Burning Man in 2008 from fire-safe insulation board and industrial tape. It took a couple of hours to make the pieces at home and an hour or two with some friends to assemble it on site. My cozy abode withstood fierce dust storms that lasted for hours and maintained a comfortable temperature that allowed me to sleep until noon, long after the blazing sun had driven my campmates from their tents.
At 70 square feet, my six-foot “stretch” Hexayurt was big enough for one and required only seven sheets of insulation board. A Haitian family of five would need a bigger structure made of plywood. Eighteen sheets will build a 276 square foot structure with four foot tall exterior walls or a 166 square foot structure with eight foot exterior walls.
“I have no doubt whatsoever that this concept could work in Haiti,” said Linton Wells of National Defense University in Washington, DC, founder of Transformative Innovation for Development and Emergency Support.
Wells field-tested Hexayurts made of foil-backed insulation board in the mountains of West Virginia. They survived 60 to 70 mile-per-hour winds, and only gave away when they were attacked by bears.
Materials for an entire Hexayurt village can be delivered on one flatbed truck. The hexagonal design makes it easy to add rooms by “honeycombing” more Hexayurts to the original structure. Families can build their own home or use local labor, which has the added benefit of developing skills needed to maintain the local economy.
And at five dollars per plywood sheet, $100 will cover the cost of the basic building materials. Painted, a plywood Hexayurt should last up to three years, and Gupta says it’s sturdy enough to survive the Haitian rainy season, and much worse. Science for Humanity is organizing structural analysis to see how the Hexayurt will respond to the hurricane conditions arriving soon in Haiti.
Plywood is plentiful and used worldwide, so supply chain issues are minimal. “And you can never have enough plywood in a disaster. You can use it fix damn near anything,” Gupta said. Atlanta-based Courageous Church is currently shipping plywood to Haiti and mobilizing 50-100 volunteers to build Hexayurts on site during spring break.
Emergency shelters must be able to adapt to the local conditions on site, said Bruce LeBel, executive director of World Shelters, a non-profit organization that designs, builds and delivers emergency structures.
World Shelters has designed different types of structures including The Buckminster Fuller-inspired U-Dome and the frameless, hard-shell TranShel, but these are meant to be longer-term transitional structures that cost $2,000 and last 10 years.
What’s needed in Haiti are flexible designs that can be built on site with local labor, not ready-made structures, LeBel said. “It’s really important that emergency shelters adapt to the context.”
Right now, he says aid agencies in Haiti are looking for ways to use 200,000 sheets of lightweight plastic that were scheduled to arrive this week. Currently, Haitians are using the sheets any way they can, sometimes attaching them to the sides of wrecked buildings or other structures. World Shelters has offered their design called JAS (Just Add Sticks) which is a framing system for the plastic that uses materials such as bamboo as corner connectors.
The need for temporary housing following a disaster has inspired many other designs as well. One already in use in Haiti is ShelterBox, invented by Rotary International, a worldwide service club organization. The sturdy plastic boxes are packed with a tent, basic tools, and survival equipment specific to local conditions such as water purifiers, and insulated ground sheets.
On average, a ShelterBox costs $780, including packaging, delivery and distribution. But they still use tents, with numerous small parts that can break or become lost. Nonetheless, seven thousand have so far been deployed in Haiti. The photo taken Feb. 2 shows a camp with 400 ShelterBox tents that house thousands of Haitians.
The crazy-looking reCover Shelter was designed for a class project by four Syracuse University students. Like a giant accordian, the structure is collapsible and customizable. It consists of 12 4-by-8-foot sheets of pre-cut and pre-folded polypropylene that simply need to be joined at the corners with zip ties and tethered to the ground on site. It’s larger than a relief tent and can be set up in minutes.
Designer Matt Malone estimated the shelters would last a few weeks and could be recycled into new sheets of polypropylene after use. So far, Malone and his co-designers have built one full-scale prototype, which cost less than $200 at retail prices. To mass-produce the customized sheets would require adding two simple steps to the manufacturing process, he said.
In order to move beyond tent cities, Haiti will need transitional housing that is sturdy and scalable. It should utilize local resources whenever possible, and it must be cheap. Otherwise, said Gupta, “There is not enough money on the table to take care of Haiti. We’re sticking a band-aid on a gunshot wound.”
Images: 1) Hexayurt/Vinay Gupta. 2) Hexayurt at 2008 Burning Man/Renee Davidson. 3) World Shelters JAS design/Kurt Therkelsen. 4) ShelterBox camp in Haiti/ShelterBox. 5) reCover Shelter/Matt Malone.