Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Challenge: Engineering a $300 House

Thayer School is offering engineering design expertise to the $300 House challenge to develop new housing solutions for the world’s poorest.

The challenge began with a Harvard Business Review blog post by Tuck School of Business Professor Vijay Govindarajan proposing that the world’s poorest population centers could be rebuilt into safe and dignified communities for only $300 a house. The post went viral, and the resulting Open Design Challenge generated more than 300 entries.

The six winning teams were invited to a design workshop, organized by Thayer Professor Vicki May and studio art senior lecturer Jack Wilson, at Thayer in January to collaborate on prototypes for the first houses.

Thayer professors and students are helping to create alternatives to the tents Haitians still occupy in the Port-au-Prince area two years after the earthquake that decimated the country.
SHELTER FROM THE STORM: Thayer professors and students are helping to create alternatives to the tents Haitians still occupy in the Port-au-Prince area two years after the earthquake that decimated the country. Photograph courtesy of Bigstock.

May and Wilson, who have been consulting with Govindarajan, spent a week in earthquake-damaged Haiti in September searching for rural and urban sites for the first houses—and talking with Haitians to find out what they want in a home. “Other organizations have come in and built houses,” says May, “but nobody wants to live in them” because they are too close to each other and lack features that Haitians prefer, such as separate cooking structures and large porches. According to May, people welcomed the prospect of houses built with local materials and according to community specifications. “They said, ‘we will build the houses ourselves if you can tell us how,’” she says.

For the rural site, May and Wilson settled on Fond-des-Blancs, a community in the mountains outside Port-au-Prince. GHESKIO, a Haitian humanitarian organization, helped May and Wilson select an urban site in Port-au-Prince. The goal is to build a prototype in each setting in June.

May has found several ways for Thayer students to help with the $300 House project, including having them assist workshop attendees in the CAD lab and machine shop. May and Wilson are covering the $300 House in their course ENGS 2: “Integrated Design: Engineering, Architecture, and Building Technology.” During spring term, students in May’s course ENGS 71: “Structural Analysis” will test house prototypes. In addition, a group of Bachelor of Engineering students has devoted its ENGS 89/90 design course project to developing a composting latrine for the Haitian houses—an effort sponsored by the Dartmouth Class of 1980.

Can each house really be built for just $300? Probably not, says May, but the target focuses effort on the real challenge: developing clean, safe, and appealing houses that Haitians can afford.

—Annelise Hansen

Categories: The Great Hall, Challenge

Tags: design, faculty, humanitarian service, projects, students

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