Engineering students build sustainable shelter

By Gwenn Barney

While it might seem daunting to help when natural disaster strikes around the globe, a group of…While it might seem daunting to help when natural disaster strikes around the globe, a group of students found a way for the victims to help themselves.

This summer, six students, each from a different engineering field, combined their skills to create a shelter design for people displaced by natural disasters entirely made out of bamboo.

Bhavna Sharma, the group’s adviser and a professor at Pitt, assigned Katie Brown, Patrick Eells, Michael Nites, Mathew Pagliassotti, Abigail Stein and Chris Zimmerman to the task as part of the National Science Foundation’s International Research Experiences for Students. She challenged them to design a temporary living structure that could quickly and easily be assembled by local residents in regions devastated by natural catastrophes.

Many people have created structures of this kind in the past, but the team presented itself with an additional challenge: to make the structure as environmentally sustainable as possible.

“Our research was inspired by two goals: disaster relief and sustainability,” said Pagliassotti, a junior electrical and computer engineering major.

In 2004, the United Nations released a report that revealed that a more efficient way to immediately assist people in countries affected by natural disaster is to send information detailing how those people might build temporary shelters to protect themselves. Often, countries use the less efficient method of sending materials and manpower to build the housing for victims of these disasters.

In early May, the Pitt engineering students set to work building the structure they believed would accomplish their goal best: a rapidly deployable bamboo gridshell structure.

The gridshell structure, shaped like an igloo, is not a new design. However, it’s a rarity for this type of structure to be built out of bamboo, as it’s usually constructed with more sturdy Glass Fiber Reinforced Polymers.

“There’s not too much research going on with [bamboo],” said Nites, a junior industrial engineering major. “Our goal was to see what is the feasibility of using bamboo wide-scale.”

Through their research, though, the students found that bamboo was the most sustainable material for their project when it’s farmed by sustainable means. Farmers cultivate bamboo sustainably by using less energy-consumptive processes to harvest the plant, such as employing an axe rather than a chainsaw, and avoiding the use of fertilizers, among other environmentally-friendly tactics.

As part of its research, the team spent two and a half weeks in Brazil studying with a bamboo expert in the region.

“This one guy in Brazil, his life is bamboo,” Nites said. “He even has a bamboo keyboard for his computer.”

The team delved into the Brazilian rainforest to see a bamboo plantation and the farming methods common to the region firsthand, staying overnight in a small cabin in the wilderness.

In addition to researching, the team also experienced Brazilian culture during its stay, dancing to samba music, attending a soccer match and indulging in local cuisine.

“After being down there I really caught the Brazilian bug,” said Eells, a junior mechanical engineering and materials science major, who plans to return to Brazil this fall for further research with bamboo.

When the six engineers returned to Pitt, they first combined their newfound bamboo knowledge with computer programs to digitally test different dimensions and building scenarios for the bamboo. They had a limited supply of 100 ten-foot bamboo columns — a measurement of bamboo equal to 1,000 feet — to work with, and so they used technology to avoid dwindling their supply through trial and error.

The team members said the most difficult part of the process was the short amount of time remaining in their program to complete the project after they returned from Brazil.

“We only had six to seven weeks when we got back. It was kind of like we were in panic mode,” Eells said.

Once they discovered the best way to build their structure, they began the process of physically constructing a prototype.

They set up the prototype on the small grassy square outside Benedum Hall on the day before they presented their completed project to the public on July 19.

To pitch the structure, the team members first created a two-dimensional bamboo grid, which they laid flat on the grass. The pieces of bamboo were tied together using plastic zip ties. They then picked up the center of the grid and used a rope and pulley system to raise the structure.

After bracing the structure with a bamboo collar, the structure was self-supporting, maintaining the igloo-like shape. The ends of the bamboo poles were staked into the ground. This process turned the two-dimensional structure into a three-dimensional temporary home in less than four hours.

“We could definitely get it done in less than two hours if we did it again,” Nites said.

In a true test of the structure’s ability to withstand the elements, it was subjected to the whiplash of a strong Pittsburgh thunderstorm the single night it stood on the lawn, and made it through to the morning looking sturdy as ever.

“We were excited about that,” Nites said.

The group admitted in its final presentation that there are some kinks in its project.

The team still needs to test out the type of material that would make the most sustainable covering for its bamboo skeleton. There’s also some economic challenges that bamboo farmers in foreign countries must be willing to meet if they are to sacrifice purely mass bamboo farming for a more sustainable bamboo farming.

However, the team members see great potential in their project.

“Our goal is to get published and present our research at a few conferences,” Nites said.

The majority of the students involved have expressed interest in continuing to work on elements of their bamboo project this semester.

The group’s advisor, Sharma, expressed satisfaction with her team’s efforts.

“In terms of their output, I’m very happy,” Sharma said. “This is sort of a beginning phase to identify possible problems in using bamboo. They’ll be refining what they’ve done through further research.”

Beyond getting its research published in an academic forum, the team wants to assure its design is one day ready to help millions of displaced civilians around the world.

“The human aspect is almost the entire reason we did it,” said Brown, a senior chemical engineering major.