News / USA

Refugee Camp Springs Up on US University Campus

Southern Methodist University showcases affordable shelters

Mud hut built out of plastic bag bricks
Mud hut built out of plastic bag bricks


Bill Zeeble

A refugee camp built by students and volunteers spreads over Southern Methodist University's expanse of green lawns and live oaks. The affordable shelters are designed to be used by the poor as well as survivors of war and natural disasters.

The diverse structures are clustered around a white United Nations tent. A six-sided poly-propylene and aluminum house is adjacent to a dome-shaped igloo made of sandbags. Next door is a recycled plastic-brick-and-mud hut. SMU senior engineering major Carson Linstead, who helped erect the dozen different buildings, spent a week living in them.

"The biggest thing is I'm getting a perspective about what's going on in different parts of the world," he says. "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."

Solar panel and GE water purifier on the HabiHut shelter roof
Solar panel and GE water purifier on the HabiHut shelter roof

Problems such as lack of shelter or power in post-Katrina New Orleans, Haiti's Port-au-Prince after the earthquake, or impoverished villages in the developing world.

"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 effect change," says Stephanie Hunt, co-founder of the Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanities at SMU. The institute was established to solve problems of the poor in the United States and around the world through engineering, collaboration and the free market. It helped fund the village on SMU's campus.

"We would like to inspire the next generation of engineer, entrepreneur, anthropologist, lawyer, anyone who can help," she says. That extends to helping find solutions to every day problems facing some of the world's poorest people, such as access to clean water.


The little campus village has a low-pressure, low-cost water purifier capable of creating enough drinking water for 3,000 people a day. Student Linstead points to solar panels on the roof of a pre-packaged shelter, and explains they can be used to re-charge cell phones.

"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," he says. "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 panels, now they will.  

The goal is not just to save lives, but to change them. The Institute hopes some entrepreneurs might earn some money with these ideas. One of the structures in the SMU village was built with bricks made mostly from recycled plastic bags.

They're held together with heavy wire.  Harvey Lacey, father of two college-aged sons, including one here at SMU, heard about this project and contributed his invention. It’s a heavy-duty, hand-crank compactor that anybody can use to form the big bricks he calls Ubuntu Blox.

Materials that make up the recycled plastic brick
Materials that make up the recycled plastic brick

"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," says Lacey, who is giving the design of his product away.  Anybody can follow his online plans to build the compactor that turns plastic bags into bricks.

On this warm day, it’s cool inside the mud-plastered Ubuntu Blox hut, thanks in part to the thick plastic insulation. Lacey says it will soon be 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 with Lacey’s design, he says that litter could be transformed into safe, affordable housing. He dreams of other benefits too.

"I look at the Harvey Lacey hut, as a means of creating jobs," says Omyonga. "And cleaning the environment, but turning waste into something that can form houses, not just for the poor."

You May Like

Syrian Rebels Poised for Anti-Russia Collaboration

Forty-one insurgent groups issue joint statement vowing retaliation for Russian air offensives More

Political Maneuver Revives Export-Import Bank's Chances

Parliamentary tactic gets bill out of committee, but it faces opposition in the Senate More

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs