There are more refugees today than ever before, and many live in camps of a million or more people. The camps need medical facilities, bathrooms, showers, water sanitation and other long-term structures to serve basic functions for people. Undergraduate students in the College of Engineering and Applied Science have developed a way to save time and tens of thousands of dollars in building these facilities. It’s called Project [un]Contained.

Their project turns shipping containers into structures serving these central needs. The containers are fitted with solar power and water, and between containers there is a courtyard area.

“If you think about it, there are a lot of applications for this,” said Peter Jenkins, PhD, PE, associate dean of research and professor of mechanical engineering, who advises the project. “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.”

Fitting the solution to the problem

When the design process began in May 2017, the plan for the project was very different. Students hoped that shipping containers could serve as permanent tiny houses for Haiti’s displaced population. The process turned out to be too expensive for living quarters, but the students 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 serves as 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 largest refugee camp in the world currently has more than 240,000 people and the 10 largest refugee camps combined have almost a million people. 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 structures for facilities are built, costing more than $3 million.

“By upcycling the 27 containers, our estimates show that we could build 20 percent of the necessary infrastructure for $30,000 less, solely by making the process more effective and efficient, and that’s not including the cost you’re saving by not transporting the containers out of the camp,” Chandler said.

Project [un]Contained recently took home second place ($2,500) and the Social Impact Award ($1,000) at this year’s THE CLIMB entrepreneurial challenge.

The modular plan allows the structures to be constructed inside the containers and, later, taken down in one day.

Starting the building process

One of the most difficult parts of the project so far has been finding containers and a space to put them. A donation from RoxBox gave students $15,000 worth of supplies, including two shipping containers to develop as prototypes. With the help of the Auraria Higher Education Center, they were also able to find a place on campus to build the project.

In April, 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, seniors working on their capstone project will continue the work, honing and improving the project. It’s been a truly interdisciplinary project, with engineering, architecture and business students working to design and implement it. Jenkins said there’s already interest from next year’s students hoping to continue the project.

“Our goal at the end of the day is to help people,” said Chandler. “We’ll make sure everything runs the way it should, pass the baton to next year’s group and explore field testing the unit with different aid organizations.”


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