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Class creation offers relief and promise

September 23, 2008


Clean Hub prototype.

 The student-built Clean Hub is currently providing water for a community garden in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

Prototype structure for disaster relief in New Orleans may spawn other uses

By Rick Moore

For weeks it stood mysteriously on the sand lot behind Ralph Rapson Hall on the Twin Cities campus—a nondescript shipping container with no apparent purpose. Then came the transformation and the container become a "clean hub," a structure designed by 16 U architecture students to provide sanitation services for victims of natural disasters.

In the June of 2007 the Clean Hub prototype was sent off to its destination—a community park in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward, an area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The Clean Hub is a portable, self-sustained structure that provides basic sanitation services. It contains a composting toilet and a 4,400-gallon water storage tank that is replenished by a rooftop tarp that catches rainwater. Electricity from solar panels powers the lights, water filtration system, and composting toilet.

Under the direction of John Dwyer and Tom Westbrook, students in the Studio 4 architecture class started with an empty shipping container and, over the course of a semester, turned it into a structure capable of providing relief for people in great need.

"This will be the only functioning [sanitation] infrastructure in the whole [Lower Ninth Ward]," Dwyer said at the unveiling.

Greta Gladney is a New Orleans community leader, and her family has lived in the Lower Ninth Ward for six generations near the site of the Clean Hub's deployment. She made the trip to Minneapolis and proudly surveyed the process of the students "assembling" the hub, which took just under 50 minutes. "This is another example of the kindness of strangers helping with the rebuilding," Gladney said.

"The students worked far more than they should have for this level of class," added Westbrook. What they were able to produce was "nothing short of a miracle."

According to Westbrook, the students were aided by the donation of many materials for the clean hub, including the shipping container itself, all of the steel, the toilet, solar panels, water tank, water filter, and sink. And the Clean Hub almost exclusively uses recycled or everyday materials, meaning the hub could be mass produced with relative ease and constructed on site using nearby materials.

For students, it was a chance to put their talents to work in producing something that may have a lasting legacy. FEMA showed interest in the students' prototype, and Dwyer is now contemplating a variety of other uses for variations of the model.

Aaron Wilson, who worked on the "tank team," said that after three years of learning through books, it was wonderful to build something that will be used somewhere. "It was an amazing learning experience," he said.

"The students worked far more than they should have for this level of class," added Westbrook. What they were able to produce was "nothing short of a miracle."

A little more than a year after the Clean Hub arrived in New Orleans, it still resides in the Lower Ninth Ward, where Dwyer says it's currently providing water for a community garden in which sunflowers have been planted to mitigate soil concerns.

As another hurricane season sends more storms toward the gulf, and with New Orleans narrowly escaping another large-scale disaster from Hurricane Gustav, the importance of ideas like the Clean Hub again becomes obvious.

Dwyer says that he is trying to secure funding for larger pilot projects connecting the University to students and faculty at universities in Indonesia, which would involve variations of the Clean Hub as sanitation blocks or mobile medical facilities. He sees a number of uses relating to public health, including the delivery of immunization supplies and nutrition supplements "securely and also frozen, if necessary."

Dwyer says the Clean Hub could be a model for structures that would be "mass produce-able," mainly for disaster relief but also for use at places like construction sites, where recycled material from job sites would be used.

Related link

Clean Hub virtual tour

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