JBU Hosts World Vision Disaster Shelter Competition

By Tracy Balzer
Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Students Design and Build Rapidly Deployable Emergency Shelters

In the early weeks after an earthquake, tsunami or hurricane, survivors may be provided with basic materials, such as tents and tarps, but transitional shelters that are safe are essential if families hope to fully recover and get appropriately re-established.

Students assemble their shelter designsThe John Brown University construction management program recently collaborated with World Vision to host the World Vision Disaster Shelter Design Competition. The purpose of the disaster shelter competition was for undergraduate teams to “develop a prototype shelter that can help World Vision with their disaster relief mission,” said Mark Terrill, assistant professor of construction management.

Each team was challenged to design and build a shelter that would be affordable, easy to assemble with limited tools, and comfortable enough for a small family to live in for a year. The event took place April 20-21 on campus.

Five teams—two from Judson University, one from University of Louisiana-Monroe, and two from John Brown—competed over two days. Competing teams began by displaying their shelters in their compact, unconstructed form, along with required tools and instructions, and gave a 15-minute presentation to a panel of judges. Each of the prototypes were then assembled and timed, and put through a series of tests and evaluations by a team of visiting judges.

First, each team took turns constructing their structure on a “seismic shake table,” a 2,500-pound machine built by JBU students and faculty that simulated an earthquake measuring approximately 5.0 on the Richter scale.

Next, bags of mulch were piled on the roofs of each structure to simulate snow weight and test for durability. Units were then assembled outdoors on the grounds of the Balzer Technology Center and were inhabited overnight by student judges to assess livability.

The final test pitted each structure against “The Wolf” – JBU’s high powered wind machine (named for “the Big Bad Wolf”) that tested durability in the face of 50 mph winds with water, followed by 70 mph winds.

In the end, one of JBU’s teams received first place honors. Joel Thomas, senior construction management major described their winning unit: “Our structure is a geodesic dome, a self-supporting structure that needs no columns or walls.”

The dome was covered with a tarp made of multi-functional material – black on one side to bring in heat when facing out, white on the other to keep the structure cool. “It weighs less than 200 pounds and no tools are needed. It’s (constructed) all by hand.”


The combination of these factors led judges to determine JBU’s design to be most worthy of the first-place prize.

“We hope this event will inspire other, similar competitions and partnerships between academia and aid agencies to spur innovations that can assist disaster survivors,” said Betsy Baldwin, program management officer of World Vision’s Humanitarian Emergency Affairs team. The JBU construction management department hopes this will become an annual event at JBU.

Meanwhile, Joel Thomas and his team members weren’t content with a mere 70 mph of wind forced upon their structure. At the end of the competition, they cranked up the wind machine to 140 mph (a category 3 hurricane) to see what it would do. Despite its excellent design, the Wolf did indeed “blow the house over,” accompanied by laughter and cheers as the aluminum structure cartwheeled across campus.
Despite it's excellent design, the shelter was no match against 140 mph winds

Tracy Balzer is a professor at JBU and works in the Office of Christian Formation