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College Students Use Shipping Containers to Help Refugees


With more refugees today than ever before, and exceedingly more expected in the coming years, the need for quick housing options is a necessity. As scary as it may sound there are actually several refugee camps of a million or more people. Each camp has a need for medical facilities, bathrooms, showers, water sanitation and other necessary structures to serve necessary purposes for people.

A group of Undergraduate students in the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado, Denver (UCD) have developed a way to not only build these facilities quickly but also save tens of thousands of dollars as well.

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Turning Shipping Containers into Refugee Facilities

Their endeavor that they call, Project [un]Contained, turns shipping containers into buildings serving these fundamental needs. The shipping containers are fitted with solar power and water, and between each container there is a courtyard area.

Professor of mechanical engineering at UCD, Peter Jenkins, says, “If you think about it, there are a lot of applications for this.” He quickly became a believer in the student’s project after seeing their presentation and vision. He added, “It could be a lab, a clinic, a classroom. There are a lot of things these containers could be used for, so I was very supportive of this.”

Trying to Solve the Problem Using Shipping Containers

When the design process started in May 2017, the plan for the project was altogether different. Students were hoping the shipping containers could serve as permanent tiny houses for Haiti’s displaced people. The students quickly discovered that the process was too expensive for living quarters, but they found a new use for the containers – one that actually saves money.

“We met with a couple organizations who said, ‘You should really consider looking at places outside of Haiti,’” said engineering student Nic Chandler, who is the project captain. “Then, the United Nations released a statement saying there are now 65.7 million refugees in the world, the largest amount ever.”

The Setting

Inhabitants live in tents, which are shipped in using shipping containers. For a 20,000-person settlement with five people per tent, 27 shipping containers must be used to transport these tents alone.

After they’re unloaded, the containers are shipped out of the camp, and then traditional buildings are constructed, costing more than $3 million.

UCD students have assessed that by upcycling the 27 containers, their estimates show they could build 20 percent of the necessary infrastructure for $30,000 less, merely by making the process more effective and efficient. Plus, you are saving by not having to transport the containers out of the camp. The modular plan allows the structures to be constructed inside the containers and, later, taken down in one day.

Shipping Container Facility Building Process

In April of this year, the prototype containers were moved into position, and construction began. Students started building the doors, as well as solar panels and sun shading to keep the unit cool. Next year, the students will continue the work, enhancing and improving the project. The project is a team effort, with engineering, architecture and business students working to design and implement the project.

Do you have an idea to make the world a better place, and you think maybe shipping containers can be a part of your plan? We’d love to hear your ideas.

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