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.


    About @ngela

    Unexpected Consequences is a blog by Angela Crowther, a young engineer working in the Built Environment. Currently supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering and UKRC's Ingenious program the blog’s aim is to raise awareness of all the exciting opportunities the world of engineering has to offer to hopefully stimulate others into joining the industry.
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