Dallas, TX – This week, two dozen Southern Methodist University students have been living outside in a UN-type refugee camp. In the village they've built, KERA's Bill Zeeble reports students have constructed affordable shelters for survivors of disasters and poverty.
Spread over SMU's expanse of green lawns and live oaks sits a white United Nations tent. Near it stands a poly-propylene and aluminum six-sided house, which is adjacent to an igloo made of sandbags. Next door is a recycled-plastic brick-and-mud hut. SMU students, including Senior Engineering major Carson Linstead, helped put all these up. This week, he and others have been living in them.
Carson Linstead: The biggest thing is I'm getting a perspective about what's going on in different parts of the world. Whenever you're an SMU student, it's easy to get caught up in the city and kind of your own little bubble, your own little world. Whenever you're an engineer there are so many problems you're capable of solving.
Problems like lack of shelter or power in post-Katrina New Orleans, Haiti's Port-au-Prince after the earthquake, or impoverished 3rd world villages.
Stephanie Hunt: By the time we reach 2020, there's going to be about 1.7 billion people living in slums. And so, we would like to affect change.
Stephanie Hunt is co-founder of the Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanities at SMU. She says it's set up to solve problems of the poor, here and abroad, through engineering, collaboration and the free market. Her Institute helped fund this village to demonstrate some solutions.
Hunt: We would like to inspire the next generation of engineer, entrepreneur, anthropologist, lawyer, anyone who can help in eradicating - well not eradicating poverty, I don't think that's quite possible, there will always be poverty - but with extreme poverty, we'd like to be a part of collaborating on helping solve issues they face day to day. Like clean water, for instance.
So in this little village, there's a low-pressure, low-cost water purifier able to create enough potable water for 3,000 people. Student Linstead points to solar panels on the roof of a pre-packaged shelter to re-charge cell phones.
Linstead: So what most people don't know is whenever you go over to these countries like Kenya and places like that, that cell phones are actually a huge, huge commodity. While these people almost have no money, they all have cell phones but they don't have any electricity to charge them.
With the solar panel, now they will. The goal here is not just to save lives. But in part, it's to change them too. The Institute hopes some entrepreneurs might make money in the process. A few feet down the path from this structure stands Harvey Lacey, next to his hut built with bricks mostly from recycled plastic bags. He invented the heavy-duty, hand-crank compactor that anybody can use to form big bricks he calls Ubuntu blox. They're held together with heavy wire.
Harvey Lacey: The beautiful things about this here, these blocks right here weigh less than two pounds. They're very, very stiff, alright? These things can go for many generations of housing.
Lacey believes in his product, and is giving the design away. Anybody can follow online plans to build the compactor that turns out bricks from plastic bags.
Lacey: When they say we'll make a house out of that, they're going to tell you to go fly a kite. But if you build like a library, a school, a church or something like this, and they go in it, this is a wonderful building. This is not made to be a trash house. This is a very substantial, structurally sound building. And when they see this they're going to go, Wait a minute, what did you want to me to do?'
Inside the hut covered in mud, it's cool on this warm day, thanks to the thick plastic insulation. Lacey says it will be moved to Oklahoma next week and tested by scientists for its durability and insulating properties. Kenyan architect Ronald Omyonga, visiting the global village before returning to his native Africa, says his country is full of these recyclable bags that now are trash. But thanks to Lacey, that litter could be transformed into safe housing.