Pallet Houses – Southern Methodist University

As a symbol of sustainability, Southern Methodist University‘s new Master’s of Arts in Sustainability and Development unveiled a new “pallet house.” The 250-square-foot house was constructed using 55 shipping pallets. Check out the images here.

Shipping pallets is an innovative idea for recycling materials into housing. What ideas do you have? Submit your proposals at


Guest Blogger – Sources of Inspiration for Global Design and Sustainability

Whether you believe in global warming or not, the fact that we have severely altered our landscapes across the globe has had a global and immediate effect on our communities, rich or poor. We have created a planet of fragmented ecosystems where we rely on outside materials for building, food crops and energy. It is urgent that we combine both modern technology and traditional ways to establish a more self-sufficient way of life. We are in dire need of a new way of looking at the world and ourselves based on place specific strategies. If each community reconfigures how we live, together we can work towards a more sustainable future.

I would like to share two sources of inspiration that, I believe, fit in with the spirit of this design challenge. The first is a more comprehensive approach to design. During the 70’s, Bill Mollisen and David Holmgren developed a framework of principles that integrate a broader framework of knowledge that aims to empower people to move from being dependent consumers to becoming responsible and productive citizens. Generalists are able to adapt in less than pristine environments. They can survive in multiple habitats and eat food from multiple sources. By encouraging more sustainable farming or gardening, energy efficient building, use of appropriate technologies and the building of local business and community, this movement, called Permaculture, offers an empowering vision of creative adaptation to what must become a period of descending use of energy.

This first example I have found influential as a more holistic conceptual framework of knowledge and how small local changes directly and indirectly affect our relationship with the environment. The second example is not just finding inspiration in how to live with nature, but more how we can learn and copy it. Biomimicry looks at nature as model, measure and mentor. Humans are struggling with problems that nature has already solved. Animals and plants have found what is appropriate to survive here on Earth. This concept of looking for solutions has been applied to design and architecture. This video is one of many examples of how we can all learn from the natural world that inspires innovation.

What inspires you?

– Elizabeth Correa, Architectural Designer

Guest Blogger – The Benefits of Multi-Hazard Engineering

Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean Tsunami are among the most serious and devastating natural disasters in recent history. They are both known worldwide for the many lives lost and the extreme property damage that resulted. Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, primarily hitting Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Hurricane Katrina was a Category 3 hurricane when it made landfall and was the costliest hurricane in the history of the United States, causing $81.2 billion in damage. New Orleans was among the cities to be hit the hardest, as protective levees broke and much of the city flooded. Storm surge wave heights exceeded twenty feet and flooded 80% of the city. The Gulf Coast of Mississippi was equally devastated by storm surge and wave action as well as winds. The Indian Ocean, or Boxing Day, Tsunami occurred on December 26, 2004, originating off the northwest coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Its destructive effects were felt across the Indian Ocean and all the way to the eastern coast of Africa. The tsunami resulted from a magnitude 9.2 subduction earthquake. The waves propagated from the epicenter of the earthquake and caused the most damage in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India. Wave heights exceeded 10 meters and reached several kilometers inland in Thailand, as shown below by the markers placed along the coast in Phuket. It is estimated that 230,000 people were killed as a result of the tsunami, in part because of the absence of a warning system. The tsunami was especially devastating in small Asian fishing villages that were built along the coast. Not only did these disasters cause immediate destruction, but for some areas much of the devastation remains today, as shown in the image above, taken two years after the Indian Ocean Tsunami.

Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean Tsunami remain pivotal events in my life due to personal experiences with the resulting devastation. I had the opportunity to visit New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina with my Computational Methods class at the University of Notre Dame to study the levee system and its failure. I was also involved in forensic engineering research that used satellite imagery and aerial photography to investigate the causes of damage to structures near the coast in Mississippi. In addition, I participated in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, Interdisciplinary Studies in Tsunami Impacts and Mitigation (ISTIM), at the University of Notre Dame during the Summer of 2007. As part of this program, we traveled to Phuket, Thailand to see first-hand the devastation caused by the tsunami and learn how to better design and build structures to prevent future deaths and destruction from similar disasters. While the occurrence of these hazards is beyond our control, novel structural engineering approaches have the ability to reduce their consequences.

It became apparent during these site visits and research experiences that structures in these areas are affected by multiple hazards, leading to unexpected effects. For example, many structures close to the coast in the southeastern United States are not only affected by the strong winds associated with a hurricane but also the damaging effects of storm surge and waves. This can be seen in the images below, taken after Hurricane Katrina, which show complete destruction of homes due storm surge and waves (left) in close proximity to homes that suffered minor wind damage but were elevated from the storm surge (right). In addition, the Indian Ocean Tsunami showed that structures near the coast in strong seismic areas may be affected by both earthquakes and tsunamis. And finally, the 2010 Haiti Earthquake occurred in an area typically affected by hurricanes. Therefore, most structures are not vulnerable to one single hazard and managing hazards individually may not yield the most efficient and effective designs. In addition, the most extreme load conditions, two hazards acting together, may not be considered.

These and similar observations are what generated the relatively new area of multi-hazard engineering. Multi-hazard engineering aims to use available resources most effectively to design safe structures that are able to withstand a range of natural hazards. This approach involves an understanding of all of the hazards that could potentially affect a structure and the use of this knowledge to determine which aspects of the structure may be most vulnerable. Then, robust design features can be incorporated in order to enhance performance when considering individual hazards or the combined loading from several hazards. Post-disaster site visits and satellite imagery are invaluable to the determination of these robust design features. For example, the building shown below is in the region hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. The lower level of the structure bore the brunt of the damage. The walls perpendicular to the wave direction have been completely destroyed. The structure, however, remained standing. After the perpendicular walls were broken, the water was able to flow through the first floor diminishing the overall loads on the structure. Post-disaster photography, such as this, can help in determining better design practices for the future. Breakaway walls on the lower levels of structures in tsunami-prone regions would allow the water to flow through instead of causing a build-up in the pressure and the forces on the ocean-side wall and other foundation components.


Designing low income urban housing comes with its own set of unique challenges without consideration of the multiple hazards with which the structures may be faced. A multi-hazard approach, however, can readily be incorporated into the design stages in order to ensure that the resources that are available are being used to most effectively resist the hazards. It is envisaged that a strong, multi-faceted structural system promises to mitigate damage from many hazards. Structural engineers have the unique ability to positively influence society in an important way by improving the resiliency of structures to hazards, allowing people all over the world to have access to safe structures in which to live and work, Shelters For All!

– Megan McCullough, Civil Engineering Graduate Student, NatHaz Modeling Laboratory, Department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences, University of Notre Dame

Recycled Plastic – A Possible Building Resource?

An article in Scientific American describes how Affresol, a Welsh company, has introduced a line of affordable homes and modular buildings where recycled plastic is used as the core structural material.

“Affresol’s primary innovation is Thermo Poly Rock, a material composed mainly of recycled mixed plastics, which pours and sets like concrete.  According to Affresol, Thermo Poly Rock has a number of advantages over concrete, but its main contribution could be a sustainable approach to housing in which homes are built on a semi-temporary basis with life cycle in mind.”

According to the article, one three-bedroom house can be constructed from 9,000 recycled TVs or 7,200 recycled computers. Affresol takes these electronics and recycles them in a granulated form (combined with other materials) to turn them into Thermo Poly Rock. Thermo Poly Rock pours and sets in a way similar to concrete, but is more flexible and has greater tensile strength.

Affresol claims that the lifespan of such houses is 80 years.

Reclaiming plastic would solve multiple global problems, but is it the best idea for sustainable housing worldwide? Do you have a better idea for sustainable housing? Submit your ideas to

Guest Blogger – A REAL Picture of Brazil’s Favelas


It’s easy for us gringos to glamorize the favelas, which are the slums of Brazil.  They are portrayed in films and photos nestled on scenic hills with breathtaking views overlooking the beaches and abundant natural beauty that the country offers.  Despite the fortunate favelas where this is true, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of favelas bear no resemblance to the photo above or the famous Rio de Janeiro locations portrayed in films.  The photo below is a more accurate depiction of the current state of living environments that are made available to low-income Brazilians.



Like most of the slums around the world, the favelas are occupied by the individuals and families who are the unfortunate byproducts of their country’s failure to provide affordable housing options for its people.  This major lack of proper infrastructure forces people to move to squatting areas.  In this situation, it doesn’t matter what the education or income level of the residents are, if people are forced to build their own homes with no guidance or codes, it will create a living environment that is unfit and unnecessary by today’s standard of living.  This practice essentially wipes away hundreds of years of living environment improvements that have been continuously updated throughout the years.

The birth of the favelas began when mass immigration from Europe created a housing shortage in the city centers.  In order to combat this problem, the government enacted programs to push out the lower income residents to designated spaces at the city’s edges.  Once there, the government took an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to overseeing the development of these communities.  Without any building code enforcement and without basic proper sanitary infrastructure provided by the government, it was inevitable that these communities would spiral out of control to form a sub-standard living environment.  Fast forward 3-7 decades later, and these problems are still being unaddressed, as most favelas have no government representation and are provided with little to no municipal assistance.  In some favelas in the large cities, it is not uncommon for the residents to be dependent on drug lords to provide the most basic services.

Due to the explanations given above and combined with overcrowding, environmental and sanitary issues are of extreme importance in the favelas.  Individual housing units lack plumbing systems, water supply, and proper electricity connections.  Waste collection is also insufficient or in some cases non-existent.  Communal washing areas consist of tubs and buckets of cold water.  Electricity is stolen from any possible source which leads to the extremely unsafe practice of linking hundreds of housing units to one power source in a very crude and haphazard manner.  Even the basic system of mail delivery is virtually impossible.  The majority of building materials used in favela living spaces is that of previously discarded items that were collected and used in makeshift construction, which can include metal sheathing used for roofing and walls.

You can be the one to develop a better housing strategy for those in need in Brazil — visit

– Jeff Loftus, Structural Engineer, B.S. Lehigh University 2007, M.E. University of Southern California 2010


Guest Blogger – Choose Your Own Adventure: The Role of Choice in Housing

Photo by Dustin Mix

I was talking to a friend a few days ago about the book series from grade school called Choose Your Own Adventure. If you don’t remember or aren’t familiar with these books, they were the type where you read a chapter and at the end, based on what you had gathered to that point, would be faced with making a decision on the protagonist’s next action. Based on your choice, you’d be directed to another section of the book and repeat the process until the story was resolved. Books had multiple endings based on the decisions you made, ranging from finding treasure to being defeated by “evil” forces. For us control freaks, these books were addicting. No longer was reading a book a passive, purely observational exercise, but now I could have some sort of influence on the story. I would read these books intensely, combing for the slightest of hints in each chapter as to what decision I should make next and obsessing over getting to the best possible ending. The satisfaction of getting to that ending was such a different feeling than reading a traditional fictional book. The power of transferring the choice of how the story would end from the author to the reader was liberating, addicting, and at times even frustrating. But the ability to direct the story was what drew me in.

In many ways, the urban housing problem in developing countries is a result of a disregard for the theme of Choose Your Own Adventure books. Across the globe, people are born into circumstances that set them up for a life riddled with a lack of choice. Whether it is choice hindered by economics, education, geography, discrimination, or a host of other factors, the world’s poorest often have been at the mercy of decisions and institutions in which they have no voice. Solving the problem of substandard housing in urban slums across the globe is a complicated and dynamic undertaking. However, the basis for any such solution should be the provision of choice; an act of empowerment. Human beings have no inherent desire to live in the squalor and inhumane conditions that define slums. Given the ability to choose between a safe or dangerous home, people will choose safety. Given the ability to choose between sanitary waste systems or an open latrine, people will choose sanitation. Given the ability to protect their families or be exposed to the elements, people will choose protection. The choice to live in a safe and clean environment and to provide shelter for one’s family is human instinct. Having that choice, having the power over the state of one’s situation, is at the core of what it means to have dignity. This dignity, inherent to existing as a human being, is to have access to the things it takes to survive in this world, however dynamic those things may be.

Photo By Dustin Mix

“Housing the world’s poor” is an often used phrase in the discussion of urban slums. If the urban slum problem is going to be addressed, the phrase needs to be more of a result than an action. Empowerment and choice is where the solution lies. Shaping and crafting an environment in which people have the choice and power to influence their living conditions is the most critical engineering task the world faces in addressing this problem. The problem is much bigger and more complex than simply providing a roof to live under. Housing is an indicator of so much more than just the availability of building materials or construction expertise. Housing is a measure and outward illustration of quality of life. The goal of improving the living conditions of the 1 billion people that are currently living in substandard conditions will manifest itself through that indicator.

Photo by Dustin Mix

Choose Your Own Adventure books didn’t always turn out the way I wanted. But as frustrating as it was to admit, I was always responsible for how I got to each ending, through the choices I had made. There won’t always be happy endings, but building systems that allow people the chance to reach a favorable ending is an adventure we all should choose.

Dustin Mix, Structural Engineering Graduate Student at the University of Notre Dame

Housing for All – An Interview with Millard Fuller posted an interview with Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, about reaching out to all countries to develop more housing for those in need.

When asked about how he was planning to expand the house-building beyond the 100 countries currently receiving aid from Habitat for Humanity, Fuller responded, “You have natural constituencies. Every country in the world has got big populations here in the United States. So when we started building in the Philippines, we found all the Filipinos we could in this country and started by going to them and saying, ‘Hey, wouldn’t you like to help out in your home country?'”

He goes on, “Our goal is to be in every nation on earth. We’re in 100 countries now. We’ll get the low-hanging fruit first. You don’t climb past fruit in order to go get the fruit that’s in the top of the tree. You get the low-hanging fruit and then eat as you go up. Probably Israel and Saudi Arabia are at the top of the tree. We’re even building in places like Vietnam, Jordan, Egypt, and Indonesia.”

Check out the article here.