Students camp out for humane design

The students were doing a final project for the class Architecture for Humanity: Design Like You Give a Damn.

by Marni Ginther

Anyone strolling along Northrop Mall on Thursday night would have come upon several dozen little tarp structures dotting the lawns – and might have wondered what they were.

As their final project, students from Topics in Architecture (Arch 3150) camped out on the Mall overnight in shelters they built and designed themselves. They could spend no more than $20 on their structures and had two weeks to build them and scavenge for free materials.

The class, titled Architecture for Humanity: Design Like You Give a Damn, is taught by Cameron Sinclair, a Cass Gilbert Visiting Professor at the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. He is a co-founder of Architecture for Humanity.

Architecture for Humanity is a nonprofit organization founded in 1999. Its mission is to “promote architectural and design solutions to global, social and humanitarian crises,” according to its Web site.

Sinclair was out of town, but his students said that in their class, Sinclair has had them design structures for people displaced by Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, as well as earthquake-resistant structures for people in Kashmir.

Through Architecture for Humanity, the students’ work is taken to these clients, who choose one of their designs, and then the students’ work actually gets built.

The purpose of Thursday’s event wasn’t so much to increase awareness or make a statement, students said.

Instead, Sinclair said the experience of being homeless for a night would help the students better understand the situation of the people they design for.

“We sit there and design all these things for someone,” said architecture sophomore Ken Weber. “But we never get to put ourselves in their shoes.”

Some students, such as interior design senior Sarah Theisen, decided to make their experience as authentic as they could. Instead of buying any supplies for her shelter, she went Dumpster diving for cardboard boxes and plastic bags.

She was glad to give a tour of her cardboard box home.

“This is my bed,” she explained. “It’s bubble wrap.”

Others, such as architecture senior Emma Pachuta, did spend some money, but tried to make their structure as hidden as possible because sleeping in public places, she pointed out, is illegal.

Her home for the night, nestled behind some bushes in front of Walter Library, used the side of the building as one wall, and was not visible from the sidewalk in front of it.

“The point was to be homeless for 24 hours,” Pachuta said. “If someone was going to stay on campus overnight, this is more what they’d have to do.”

Senior Jonathan Bahe and junior Allison Rockwell said it was important to have an experience like this that puts them in the place of people in need of shelter. Being able to build structures conducive to different socioeconomic, geographic and cultural backgrounds, they said, is a valuable skill for an architect.

“There are so many political and cultural issues of different countries,” Bahe said. “Sometimes responses that the U.N. provides are so bad because they don’t take those issues into consideration.”