Shelter Systems' Relief Domes were featured in the 2011 Emergency Shelter Exhibition at the Customs House in Sydney
See the wholle article as a pdf here
On 11 March 2011, Japan’s North-Eastern coast was shaken by the Tohoku Dai-ShinSai– the great Tohoku seismic disaster – with peaks up to a magnitude of 9.0 MW. Three months after the initial media coverage, interest in the aftermath had already dwindled despite ongoing nuclear hazards. An official statement was published on 6 June 2011 stating that the released radioactivity of the Fukushima Daiichi plant was now estimated to be more than twice the amount originally announced in the first week of the crisis. While emergency needs have been largely met, recovery and reconstruction will take years of volunteer and community work to complete.
How to get involved
This exhibition is part of an effort to guide public attention beyond the sensational aspects of this crisis and garner support and donations for the Japanese survivors in their ongoing efforts. Seeing and visiting these structures in a public space is an effective reminder of ongoing relief and recovery work in Japan and beyond. Today, 75% of the world’s population live in areas where at least one earthquake, tropical cyclone, flood or drought has occurred between 1980 and 2000. As a result, two hundred million people have been affected by natural disasters in the last decade alone. In the near future, this number is expected to increase with the effects of climate change.
Because of the global proportions of these problems, the need for worldwide cooperation in coping with them is now widely acknowledged. Organizations like UN-Habitat, Care and Global Giving or charities like Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies and Caritas are routinely contributing to the post-disaster emergency and recovery efforts. Their reputation as reliable recipients for donations allows them to redistribute grants and coordination services to smaller grass roots non-profits and partner with their task forces on the ground. Through open networks like Global Giving, donors can now even target specific operations, learn more about them and possibly choose to get involved beyond funding.
Disaster Relief Process
In the broadest terms, two stages of interventions have to happen after a disaster.
The first and foremost need is short-term relief through basic emergency shelter, clothing and food supplies. Because clinical studies have shown that the psychic effects of trauma tend to deepen with prolonged exposure to chaos and struggle, rapid and reliable shelter for survivors is a fundamental priority.
Secondly, once the most basic needs have been met, long-term recovery and reconstruction of infrastructure and permanent homes must begin, so that temporary shelters don’t turn into permanent slums.
In both stages, responsible design and planning need to take into account the type, culture and means of the population, degree of preparedness and experience, climate, geography, need for external funding, quality of infrastructure, severity of the destruction and future availability and maintenance of building materials. None of this can be fully assessed or understood without an active team on the ground and a field experienced home base.
Design for Emergency
So, what can design effectively do to meet human needs in times of disaster?
The answers to this question are multiple and can’t be summed up in a single object. Ateliers Jean Nouvel’s contribution to this exhibition is therefore not one exclusive design solution, but rather a presentation space for multiple practical examples of Emergency Design. The emergency shelter dome itself was designed and donated by the structural engineer and inventor Robert E. Gillis. A small library inside of it contains a series of books covering disaster and poverty relief work by non-governmental design charities like Emergency Architects, Article 25, Architects for Humanity, Rural Studio and many more. A book on Strategic Interventions for People in Crisis, Trauma and Disaster gives clinical insight into what survivors may have undergone.
When it gets too dark and late to read inside the dome, its white tarp becomes a projection screen that shows passers-by web sources and quotes of NGO sites and charities involved in current recovery work in Japan.
Robert E. Gillis is the founder of Shelter Systems and has invented, developed, adapted and patented low cost shelter structures since 1970. In 1976, he licensed Oval Intention, the world’s first commercial dome tent to The North Face for commercial production. Since then, he has developed 18 US patents related to tent structures and lived with his family in his own prototypes for more than 20 years of his life. In choosing this lifestyle of self-sufficiency, he turned the needs and problems of future shelter users into his own.
Shape and Scale
The exposed shelter is a sample of Shelter System’s 18’ (5.4m) wide hemispherical relief tent with a twelve-sided polygonal base. It can be scaled up to 30’ (9.14m) or down to 14’ (4.27m). These sizes can be used as they are for a variety of configurations from a small community assembly space to just housing a family or they can be combined into clusters.
The hemisphere is the geometrically and structurally most efficient way to enclose a space. It allows for a free standing structure that only needs to be tied down for wind resistance, but not to keep its shape. This means in short that a minimum of material is needed to enclose a maximum of space. Gillis describes the structure as “geotensic.” The term suggests a contraction of geodesic and tensegrity principles. Geodesic geometries describe the transformation of continuous spherical surfaces into a regular open lattice of polygons. Tensegrity is a structural configuration made up of discontinuous “floating” compression rods that are tied together with a continuous network of tension cables or rods. The elegance and efficiency of such a system lies in the fact that each element only handles either pure compression or pure tension, but no bending moments. Because of these properties, each force applied to one point is evenly distributed throughout the geometry of the whole system.
In the case of this shelter dome, six independent arches and a horizontal ring at mid-height are the discontinuous compression elements and the suspended membrane underneath them is the continuous tensile system that prevents them from falling apart. The flexing of the arches tightens the suspended tarp underneath and improves its performance not only as a wind and rain barrier, but also as a structurally functioning part of the system.
The key invention of this design is its method of assembly. The system relies on patented connectors, called Grip Clips. They tie the arches to the tarp in a similarly loose way bones and muscles in our body are interconnected to maintain shape and balance. The Grip Clips fasten the arches to the membrane from above with no need to puncture it and at the same time connect one piece of it to the next. This allows creating the dome geometry with overlapping shingles, but no seams, grommets or other perforations. The drum-tight tarp sheets will let no rain or wind through, but can still be kept open to improve ventilation by inserting a large enough object. On the inside, dividing walls or objects can be hung from each Grip Clip. The clip capacity is designed for a load of up to 200 pounds and it will break before the membrane can rupture, which would be the bigger damage for the overall system.
Materials, Recycling and Re-Use
The frames are constructed of UV-stabilized, Class 200, 3/4" to 1-1/4" diameter (35 mm) PVC (Poly Vinyl Chloride) tubing, which is commonly used for plumbing. The membrane covering is a white translucent rip stop film, a common packaging material made of laminated layers of woven copolymer that is also treated with a UV stabilizer and a fire retardant. The Grip Clip material is a moulded UV stabilized Polypropylene.
Shelter Systems offer additional accessories like interior liners for better insulation, ground tarps for cleaner flooring or externally applied woven black shading cloths for glare and heat reduction. All materials and assembly methods were chosen for highest resistance, lowest cost, minimal weight, universal availability, easy repair and best chances of adaptive re-use. Dimensions and weight conform to international airfreight standards for rapid and efficient shipping.
Fundamentally, the range of Shelter Systems’ products suggests a highly adaptable assembly strategy rather than a series of specific design solutions. The PVC poles could be replaced with taped bamboo, the tarp could be a canvas, fabric or Tyvek construction sheathing and the floor could be a timber deck. With some knowledge and ingenuity, users can reinvent materials and designs based on what is locally available.
Because recycling facilities don’t exist in most locations where Shelter Systems’ relief tents are deployed, the PVC poles have been selected for their possible re-use in residential plumbing and the tarps for their potential of being taped or clipped together as roof sheathing during reconstruction. Re-use is worth planning for, because it is clearly less polluting and wasteful than incineration, particularly in developing countries where building materials are scarce.
Production and Cost
Every Dollar spent on procurement, manufacturing, shipping and waste of temporary relief shelters is a missing Dollar in permanent reconstruction and future economic development. Because no sewing or manufacturing is needed, one person can cut and assemble one of Shelter Systems’ 18’ domes ready for shipping in about one hour and this portable 23m² shelter can be made to order for relief agencies for 350 US Dollars.
Form and Meaning
The elements that make up Shelter Systems’ relief tents are ordinary and not particularly strong compared to steel and concrete, but once brought together and connected in the right way they form a remarkably tough and beautiful unity. They can resist so well together, because each blow to one member is answered by the whole system and each part of it works to the best of its specific strengths and abilities.
Since these could be the words used to describe the core meaning of community, this humble and unsentimental design embodies in its own way the very spirit of resilience.
In BBC News
7 June 2011 quoting NISA, Japan’s nuclear regulator
In United Nations Development Programme annual report, 2004
Marie J. Aquilino in Beyond Shelter, 2011, p.7
Diana Sullivan Everstine and Louis Everstine in Strategic Interventions for People in Crisis, Trauma and Disaster, 2006, p.XIV
The “Geodesic Dome” principle was first patented and built in Germany by Dr. Walther Bauersfeld with his 1923 Zeiss I Planetarium in Jena and later named and patented in the USA by Buckminster Fuller in 1954.
The “Tensegrity” principle was first fully implemented by the artist Kenneth Snelson in 1948. Buckminster Fuller later coined the term based on a contraction of “tensional integrity,” reflecting a continuous network of tension cables with discontinuous compression rods.
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