Toby Cumberbatch

Professor of Electrical Engineering

RAGS - Reuse of Available Garbage for Shelter

            RAGS is an attempt to design a template for a modular shelter that can be tessellated to provide a sustainable urban environment for the millions of families who live in self-built houses within the self-organized communities that comprise the shanty towns throughout the world. To make the design available to those with extremely limited resources, and to permit the greatest flexibility of location, the shelter does not require access to sources of power or water.

            The generation and disposal of waste represents a terrible misuse of resources by our society, ultimately caused by poor design and engineering. Large conurbations generate huge quantities of low-level waste such as plastic bags and bottles, glass bottles, newspaper and cardboard that is generally condemned to landfills or incineration. Generating a route for the reuse of these materials for construction extends their useful life whilst addressing the needs of shelter for the world’s poor. The intent of the design procedure is to generate a template for the construction of an aesthetic, durable house that can be easily adapted for fabrication throughout the world using the low quality waste at hand. The structure must be able to withstand the extremes of the local climate with heating and cooling systems, implemented through passive heat transfer techniques, used to provide a comfortable internal environment – best suited to the location and ambient temperature. Amongst other roles, the roof is used to collect water which is then purified using a simple sand filtration system for on site storage. A water-free process for the collection and disposal of human waste is considered an essential ingredient of a healthy neighborhood; the facility may be a family or shared resource.

By incorporating the means for internal temperature control, water collection, and sanitation into the core design, a controlled-regulation of the surroundings becomes an integral outcome of the shelter design. We argue that a combination of a house with aesthetic appearance with less-polluted surroundings will contribute significantly to a more visually appealing environment – and thus lead to the formation of a community with more self-respect and greater control over its destiny. This is in contrast to the more normal situation in which those with very limited material and financial resources are often condemned to live in squalor in closely spaced shacks that lack aesthetic appeal. The problems arising from this environment are usually compounded by inadequate sanitation facilities and limited access to potable water – the result being a habitat that does little to encourage hope or promote public health.

            Meeting each week throughout their first semester, twenty-five first year students were presented with the challenge of designing and constructing a shelter from trash. Within the framework discussed, the class addressed the concepts of sustainable engineering; minimalist design; reuse of materials; and design for the urban poor. From a consideration of water and energy needs, they began to appreciate the fundamental resources required to support human life.

Whilst the use of garbage for shelter is not new, the class demonstrated that a combination of low level waste comprising plastic bottles, newspaper, plastic bags, cardboard and plasticized cardboard containers, generally available throughout the world, can be used to construct a shelter in New York City – potentially suitable for occupation throughout the year. During the Fall 2009 semester, a section of the incoming first year class will refine the existing design and build a single story house ready for habitation by the end of the semester.