Moving House

Moving house is one of a series of educational engineering resources developed by the Royal Academy of Engineering in collaboration with STEM.  It provides ideas for interactive activities (using jelly!) exploring how earthquakes produce waves and vibration that have knock on effects on the structures engineers design and build.

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The ShelterBox Hotel – Concept to reality and beyond


The ShelterBox Hotel
Mediterranean Biome, Eden Project

Established 2:3:2011
Dismantled 3:3:2011

Rome wasn’t built in a day.  But what if it had been?  What if all that engineering vision and rock solid design was compressed into a micro timeframe?  What if they’d set out to build a city in a day to last a day? Just one day.
We set out to build The ShelterBox Hotel in a day to last a night.  Just one night.
To see how resourceful and creative we can all be when we want or need to be.

Hour 1: 15:30 – 16:30, 18:01:2011
DOTT, organizers of Cornwall Design Season 2011 get in touch wanting a free-form, luxury sleepover hotel in the Mediterranean biome at Eden.  Plan is to entice guests into donating the equivalent of a 5* stay to the charity ShelterBox who deploy tents to those in need in the wake of natural disasters worldwide.  The construction material? – 10,000 decommissioned tent poles!

Hours 2 & 3: 12:30 – 14:30, 31:01:2011
ThinkUp brainstorm: The volunteers meet to ponder what you can actually do when let loose in a biome with 10,000 tent poles!  With a room full of designers ranging from engineers to textile gurus the ideas are wacky and wonderful.  From cradles hanging at dizzying heights from the roof to a nest with David Kester (Chief Executive of the Design Council) in pride of place at the summit, ruling the roost as mother hen; By the end of the meeting we decide all that’s really important is providing a bloody good breakfast!

Hour 4: 20:30 – 21:30, 31:01:2011
Reflection: Breakfast is important! It will keep our guests happy if all else fails!  But on a more serious note we are really there to showcase ShelterBox.  Can we orchestrate an intervention that challenges people’s conceptions of shelter and raise awareness of the situations in which our tentpoles are normally used?
Emergency shelters often become longer term homes and so fostering health and happiness from the outset is vital.  Drawing on experience working for NGO’s abroad the following factors are deemed notable and an attempt will be made to integrate them into the ShelterBox Hotel design in a bid to derive a meaningful structural form:

  • Places that are deemed successful are the ones that make the most of the natural surroundings, encouraging natural light and ventilation of space and include green-space.  We’ve spoken about how great our surroundings are and how it’s important for us to encourage the views of the ‘stars’ and expose our guests to the smells of the biome. 
  • Equally desirable is to introduce a level of masterplanning that enables flexibility of space and fosters interactions and a sense of community between inhabitants.  So whilst a certain level of privacy is needed for comfort, the idea of a hotel that brings people together and puts you in closer quarters with strangers than usual is good.
  • When creating a community it’s also important to allow individuals to inject individuality into their personal space.  We spoke about delegates being shattered so really we want the hotel to be ready for them, but maybe there’s a token act of personalisation that we can prepare for them?  (Addition of beautiful colours is often a good one)
  • Emergency supplies need to be shared equally and amongst many too and so this should be reflected by using an efficient structural form for our hotel.  (A shell was suggested at one point which may be good.)  To best advertise Shelterbox the poles need to be the star of the show and so, on reflection, I question the introduction of miles of ribbon and parachute silk/ netting (despite loving the idea of a material drifting down to enclose you and the idea of creating a kind of colourful drum-skin to sleep on).  
  • On top of which, we also need to consider the needs of our hotel: 

  • The need to create a big visual impact to get exposure – to do so I think we need to find a way that makes the most of the potential to go vertical in the space (despite associated H&S issues).
  • The need for a short, simple construction to meet the deadline and enable visitor participation – a simple modular design that could be later assembled like a jigsaw may help?  It’s also really important to make the participants feel like they are really making a contribution = so them creating (and decorating?) an entire piece of the jigsaw in a relatively short space of time could be useful in this?
  • A particularly interesting consideration for us is the need to deconstruct our shelters after one night.  In reality emergency structures often transition into permanent homes, or if they are deconstructed it is because a new, permanent space has been built and so those involved have a future to look forward to.  What can we do to entice a bunch of hungover builders to deconstruct yesterday’s handiwork?! Or can we think of a useful way to reuse the poles in the future?  (e.g.  Maybe a modular design system could mean that each element is a seat in its own right and so they get deconstructed and relocated around Cornwall for the rest of the season?)
  • Hour 5: 12:30 – 14:30, 07:02:2011
    In the absence of having any poles to play with we set our minds to wondering what we can sensibly do with a collection of poles.   As far as the materiality is concerned the individual poles will only take compression/shear, although if we were to bundle a number of poles (lapping the individual sections) they could take tension and hence some bending too.
    Is it possible for us to modularise construction and create a component that is an entity in its own right? It’s important to us that the ShelterBox stunt isn’t a one-off and talk of legacy uses as sun-shades, wind-breaks and seating auctioned off across Cornwall is exciting.

    Hours 6 & 7: 12:30 – 14:30, 15:02:2011
    We have poles! – Finally able to test what’s possible.  Unfortunately the poles prove more of a constraint rather than freeing us up to brainstorm / test ideas.  Don’t seem able to escape from creating tent-like domes; perhaps tent-poles are fit only for purpose? We do work out the tightest bending diameter of the poles as 5m.

    Hours 8 & 9: 12:30 – 14:30, 28:02:2011
    Guesstimate the plan of the biomes and DOTT’s rough dims. from a recce.  Use this plan, a desired hotel room size, a need to go visibly tall and the magic 5m diameter to generate the geometry of the ShelterBox Hotel.
    Programmatically we need to provide a reception and lounge bar as well as hotel rooms for as many overnight guests as possible (realistically probably 30).  Our construction also needs to co-exist with Eden’s visitors.  User-experience is the real design driver and all things considered the best use of space seems to be to create a covered, twisting walkway showcasing the poles to both visitors and guests alike.  The niches created by the outer curves of this walkway become the rooms themselves, with visitors stepping out and into their rooms in Eden.  These rooms are open to the biome, crammed full of the magic of Eden – as it is Eden itself which will be the most exciting setting for the night’s stay.
    We match geometry and programme together in Rhino and press go on a rather cool plug-in called MAGPI, which niftly generates a rather seductive image of our hotel.  The design captures the desire to turn the notion of shelter on its head by turning the living quarters inside out.  This is encapsulated as a journey along an intimate winding path from which our open-air rooms spring.

    Hours 10 – 12: 01:30 – 04:30, 02:03:2011
    Time to snatch a few hours sleep as we chug down to St. Austell.  Snapped out of dreams about poles every time the train jerks to a stop. 

    Hour 13: 07:00 – 08:00, 02:03:2011
    We’re snuck in through the delivery doors at Eden; Quite a sight to behold as they glide apart to reveal another, warmer, world.  We are shown the space we will be working in and seeing the stacks and stacks of poles the immensity of our task hits home.  Start by doing some reverse expectation management on the ShelterBox Rep., convincing him to give us until midday to prove our design before resorting to raiding a ShelterBox for a tent that will definitely stand up! 

    Hours 14 – 17: 09:00 – 12:00, 02:03:2011
    Midday seems to hurtle towards us, as the initial prototype takes longer than expected.  But once we’ve cracked the connection details we’re away and everyone is able to get stuck in, rather than acting as expensive temporary works!
    It’s really cool to see the Hotel materialise before our eyes.  Feel like a movie director but as there’s no time to make alterations the cast are able to adlib.  As a result we end up with a rather dome-like structure over the central lounge, which we were desperate to avoid.  Strategic pole positioning along the entrance corridor saves the day somewhat and this area best demonstrates what we set out to achieve.

    Hours 18 & 19: 12:00 – 14:00, 02:03:2011
    Tarting up the poles:  Let’s face it, tent poles are ugly.  As idealistic as an all pole structure was we can thank our lucky stars for the salvaging efforts made by many a trip to NISP.  Bunting, ribbons and fairy lights provide a much-needed facelift for the structure and a strategically draped black cargo nets provides the illusion of the closer pole weave we would have created given bags more time.

    Hour 20: 14:30 – 15:30, 02:03:2011
    The Truman Show:  Going crazy from too many hours in the biome.  Wonder if Ant Farm, the idealistic architects of pneumotopia (inspired by Bucky Fuller and Frei Otto), would have deemed inflatable cities as the future if they had been able to try living in Eden.

    Hour 21: 16:30 – 17:30, 02:03:2011
    It’s official – the need for poles was grossly overestimated.  The Falmouth students tirelessly return the 9,500 unused poles to storage!  We could make a ShelterBox City with the rest!

    Hour 22: 20:30 – 21:30, 02:03:2011
    Reception:  Stars twinkling overhead, the hotel provides a brilliant backdrop to the evening’s entertainment.  The space comes alive under the watch of a local band.

    Hour 23: 23:30 – 00:30, 02:03:2011
    Nightcap: With whisky to warm our cockles the lucky guests enjoy a behind the scenes tour of the biome.  From the African tree that orgasms when touched to the Italian figs that have hundreds of years of stories captured in their timber, the wildlife in the biome is spectacular.

    Hour 24: 06:00 – 07:00, 03:03:2011
    We were promised waking up in Eden would be magical and it truly was.  Even waking up predominantly from shivering rather than the soft sound of birdcall and the aromatic scents of the orange grove couldn’t dampen spirits.  Sunlight streamed into the biome as we devoured bacon sarnies.  Then we were allowed out on day release to the beach whilst children take over our Bedouin beast to host a story-telling extravaganza.  Deconstruction starts at 22:00 and it will be a shame to see it go, although the ShelterBox Hotel somehow feels all the more ethereal because of its shortlife.

    Happily Ever After:
    Unfinished business:  We want to do it again! The ShelterBox Hotel may be popping up at Bergamo Biennale, Italy come the fall.  With a bit more planning and more time on our hands we plan to reconstruct the ShelterBox Hotel to prove our computer design.  Whilst the ‘following the plans’ part of our construction fell by the wayside somewhat given the time pressures and limited pairs of hands the essence of the idea survived; Which is the important bit.  The playful inversion of what it means to provide sheltered accommodation was there for all to experience.
    Better yet, The ShelterBox Hotel taught us lessons we didn’t expect to learn; Which is how it should be.    Not having the time to rigidly stick to a plan actually allowed us to escape the box and promoted creative discussions around how to encapsulate the key ideas.  As engineers it sometimes seems like these ideas can become buried under a mountain of tick boxes and that we are removed from the process of rescuing them, so this unforeseen opportunity to concentrate on the concept was welcome.
    Structure can’t survive alone; As conceptually idealistic as letting the poles do all the talking was, the interaction between everyone’s different requirements, be it Health and Safety or wanting to create a comfy bed for the night, was what brought the ShelterBox to life.  Design needs different points of view and in the case of the ShelterBox Hotel, synchronising rather than eliminating them proved most successful.
    Time didn’t allow us the luxury of creating modules.  But the lack of time did demonstrate to us what can actually be achieved when people put their minds to it; Realism won over optimism, but spirits couldn’t be tempered because in terms of the spirit of the Hotel, the reality of what was achieved was more than anyone could have imagined.  Nevertheless, the legacy of the ShelterBox Hotel will live on.  Maybe next time more can be done in a day.  Maybe next time the needs will be different and a new tent pole challenge will be set.  It remains to be seen…

    Rome couldn’t be built in a day, but the ShelterBox Hotel could.

    See more photos and information about the project here.

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    Wrestling wildlife

    Today marks 50 years of the World Wildlife Foundation (not to be confused with the World Wrestling Federation!) and with precision timing Expedition have reached a design milestone for the WWF-UK Living Planet Centre – a new headquarters for WWF.  It is thanks to a high level of interdisciplinary collaboration that this project is shaping up to be exemplar in its approach to sustainable design – no fisty-cuffs in sight when juggling the many different needs of the project with the desire to touch the earth lightly… the wildlife comes first.

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    Revision season is approaching … and just in time we’ve come up with the perfect distraction / a way to spend your well deserved breaks!

    Cause a catastrophe! Take out any pent up frustrations by making some well known structures fall down!

    Follow the link to play:

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    Shelterbox Hotel

    One night in Eden

    The 5* Shelterbox Hotel showcases the Shelterbox charity’s hard work.  It will be popping into the Mediterranean Biome of the Eden Project for one night only, as part of the Cornwall Design Season.  Designed using approximately 10,000 old tent poles as a co-creation piece of art, you can come help construct the hotel or even book a night’s stay for the 2nd March.  After the event this traveling installation will be winding its way across Cornwall, providing shelter in a number of weird and wonderful places for the rest of the season.

    Even if you can’t be there you can still donate to Shelterbox – an international disaster relief charity that delivers emergency shelter, warmth and dignity to people affected by disaster worldwide.

    Donate to Shelterbox

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    The blogging meat dress

    I watched with amusement as Sir Paul Nurse reduced James ‘the devil’ Delingpole into a gibbering mess (well maybe not such an achievement when you put it like that!) on the recent Horizon: Science Under Attack emission.  And yet, curious to see whether it might be the straw that broke the camel’s back and actually shut the idiot up for once, I logged onto his blog to find him continuing to refute climate change.  Although what more should I expect from the “writer who is right about everything”?

    Yet why is it that he gets a column in the Telegraph?  Why do we encourage unfounded controversy?  Why do average people resort to making controversial ‘fashion’ statements to sell their average songs?  And more interestingly still, why do the public stand for it?

    Is altercation really the only way to get noticed?  Are the majority of people really not interested in engaging with a more meaningful and intelligent level of debate?  Do ‘artists’ really have to resort to dead animal dresses and dirty beds to make their millions?

    If the answers are yes, how does this translate to those keen to tell their own stories?  Are those anecdotes better off kept for indulgent loved ones down the pub once the celebrity gossip dries up?  I’ve been thinking a lot about public engagement recently, my role in producing the Expedition Workshed and as an ambassador for the Royal Academy of Engineering demands it.  I agree wholeheartedly with Tom Sheldon’s (of the Science Media Centre) view that engineering communication is all about telling public interest stories that just so happen to have an interesting engineering angle to them.  That leaves us with the challenge of designing the raw meat facade for our buildings, so to speak.

    Life was packed with love and loss whilst working as an engineer in international development; it was easy to find a story to tell and feel like my work was needed.  What’s more those stories had beating hearts and breathing lungs as opposed to being dogs’ dinners.  Is it time to sling my backpack over my shoulder and rediscover those feelings in a new danger zone, or is that the easy way out?  Is the real challenge going to be for us UK based engineers to discover a way to unite our commercial work with life’s major preoccupations?

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    The V&A is currently hosting the Shadowcatchers exhibition.  It’s a thought provoking look at the world of camera-less photography and the interaction between the real and imagined that it captures.  The absolutely beautiful images make one of the artists’, Pierre Cordier, comments rather poignant – when trying to find a category into which he can slot his work he was told ‘you’re a faux-artiste, faux-painter and a faux-tographer!’

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    The Engineering Message

    In the olden days, when I was at school, I didn’t have a clue what an engineer was.  Not the foggiest, less still that I might want to be one ‘when I grew up’.  And this despite my father being a water engineer:  I remember having to admit “I don’t know” when asked the fatal “what does your dad do?” by a friend’s dad!  He couldn’t believe this, and being a policeman decided it was a cover-up and he must be a robber!

    Luckily these days a lot of people are working hard to inform our youngsters of the different career paths open to them.  Not only that, they want to demonstrate just how exciting choosing engineering can be – who needs to be a footballer / ballerina / rock star (*delete as appropriate) when you could be travelling the world AND designing exciting structures AND making people’s lives that little bit better?

    One such initiative is the Royal Academy of Engineering’s ‘The Engineering Message‘, which goes some way to not only explaining what being an engineer can mean but also demystifying the route to get there.  Better use of resources like this in the classroom should help tomorrow’s engineers prepare for their future more wisely (and save a few parents from wrongful arrest!).

    The Engineering Message

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    Back in November a team of young engineers, myself included, entered an annual competition known as Teambuild.  This competition provides the opportunity for engineers from different disciplines to spend a weekend tackling a, judged, design challenge.  This year that challenge centred around Nirah, a freshwater ‘Eden’ located in the heart of England.  We scooped the procurement prize for our cool negotiating in the ‘Dragons Den’ courtesy of the Worshipful Company of Chartered Architects.  A thoroughly enjoyable weekend was had by all, and the event is definitely to be recommended.

    Find out more on the attached report:

    Teambuild Report

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    The science of sleep

    I remember as a child sitting in the back seat of the car as my dad drove the family home from a day out in the Yorkshire Dales, always on the look out for interesting and unusual sights out of the window – I was the eye-spy champion after all!  One time in particular sticks in my mind, the time we pulled over to watch an owl sat ever so still on the gable end of a neighbour’s house.  It seemed like forever that we watched it, tens of minutes at least, all five of us debating why he was sat so still for so long.  He wasn’t entirely still of course – his wings flapped a little and his head definitely twitched numerous times.  A while passed and we eventually resigned ourselves to not seeing him take-off and soar through the night sky in search of prey.  Not that evening in any case, and so we went home to bed.  Of course not long afterwards we drove past the house in daylight and Mr. Owl was still there, doomed to perch in a stony silent eternity, under the spell of a wicked witch.

    I remember after that episode I would listen out for Owls as I lay enveloped by the dark stillness of night in my bed in the countryside.  It was a rare occurrence to hear their call. This memory had completely slipped my mind until recently, now I dream of those days as I’ve become blighted by the call of birdsong in the early hours as I try to sleep.  When I first moved to London I was too frustrated by the endless passing of buses and slamming of doors to hear birdsong as I lay in bed, but as I become accustomed to the sounds of the city that never sleeps I realise that this trend is also followed by our bird population.

    All night long there is bird call, relentless.  Louder than I’ve ever known it, as if in competition with us humans and our machines.  It’s rather disorientating, hearing the dawn chorus in the deep of night and recently has become rather an obsession of mine. At first I thought I was crazy, my ears were hallucinating.  When I could still hear the birds weeks later I drew the conclusion that it was drug dealers using tin whistles to attract customers to their spot! (I blame that on too many stories of smugglers.)  Finally I turned amateur sleuth and googled it – it’s amazing what you can find out on the internet these days!

    It turns out that birds in cities are just confused.  All the street lights casting a permanent glow over the city convince the birds that the sun is still out.  Somehow night time never arrives and so the birds never sleep.  The way we live is affecting nature in much more subtle ways than simply the climate change and over-development headlines.

    I remember a Londoner friend commenting on seeing stars for the first ever time as we started our gap year on Dartmoor.  Well, he may never have seen stars but I hedge a bet that he has heard far more birds than me!

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