What do a shower curtain, cardboard boxes, origami and hiking poles all have in common?

They can all be used to build shelters designed to withstand extreme cold.

A group of Ball State University architecture graduate students used those materials and more in creating extreme weather shelters as a part of a class project. The group traveled to Washington State in October to test their structures in the Northern Cascade Mountains, the site of the nation’s highest recorded one-year snowfall. In 1998-1999 about 95 feet of snow fell on Mt. Baker.

Zionsville native Jennifer Pease has always been interested in immersive, hands-on architecture. As an undergraduate architecture student and now a graduate student, she’s helped design and construct play areas and pocket parks in Indianapolis and Muncie.

“These immersive, really hands-on projects are something I really value,” the second-year grad student said. “Not only designing them and building them with my own hands but to be able to work with the community.”

So when Pease heard about the Architecture in Extreme Environments studio course she signed up.

Nine students joined the project. Each was tasked with choosing materials and then designing and building a structure that could both serve as a shelter and easily move around with a hiker.

Part of what attracted Pease to the project was the openness of it. The students would not just think about the problem, but would actually carry their shelters through the mountains and then test them in the snow of the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s really forward-thinking. We know that our environment is changing and we want to know how we can understand that more,” she said.

“You can only do so much from Muncie, Indiana, but to actually be able to take it out to Washington, to experience the enviro for ourselves, helped us understand tangibly how our environment is changing and how we can start to address that in our designs.”

The students started out in Muncie, where they bought materials for their projects, designed them and built them all at Ball State. They studied the weather patterns of the Northern Cascades and researched the area to determine what materials would work best for the environment.

Pease decided construct her shelter out of an aluminum grid. The structure would have to travel with her on a plane and car ride and then a hike through the mountains, so it would have to be lightweight.

Pease then constructed a skin of durable vinyl lined with a thin insulating material to go around the aluminum and keep in the warmth. The structure was triangular, with triangular panels on the outside to enhance the design, she said. It weighed about 30 pounds and was large enough that she could curl up inside.

In early October the group boarded a plane for Seattle with their projects. They then made the three-hour drive to Mount Baker, where they hiked Table Mountain to try to scout locations for set-up. The area was too steep, though, and some of the student with larger projects didn’t think they’d be able to make it with their structures.

The group hiked again the next day until they found some snow. The weather was unusually warm, sunny enough that some people took off their jackets, Pease said.

“The first few days we there were a lot warmer than we were expecting. That’s where the extreme environment comes in,” Pease said. “Holy cow, of course what we actually experience in this supposedly extreme weather was extremely the opposite of what we were expecting. That could never be simulate in Indiana or Muncie.”

The patch of snow was icy, and on a slight incline, so set-up took longer than expected. Pease needed about 45 minutes to an hour to assemble the 30 aluminum grids of her structure.

Once all the shelters were built, the snowy landscape looked like a tiny village, Pease said.

Some of the students had designed their structures with origami in mind, so that they folded easily in just one or a few pieces. One of the students had built their project out of cardboard and a sealing material; another had used a heat sheet and hiking poles to simulate the items a real hiker would have. Another student made a lattice structure that folded down, while another made a large shelter out of PVC pipe and an insulating skin, and still another used plywood and a shower curtain.

While many of the students went more primitive, one used several software programs that enabled him to input the time of day and location to his shelter. The shelter would then create a viewing hole or window at the exact location of the sun.

“It was really neat to see the wide range of projects and how we were given one problem and came up with nine different solutions,” Pease said.

The students left their shelters up in the morning and afternoon. They gave presentations to one another about their projects and assessed how their expectations had aligned with the reality of being on the mountain.

Pease had expected to weigh the flaps of her shetler down with snow. But because the snow was frozen to ice, she had to find rocks to make sure it stayed in place.

Once the sun dipped below the mountain range the students packed up their shelters. Many put back on their jackets, gloves and hats – the temperature drops there quickly once the sun is gone.

For Pease, the opportunity to not just theorize on an idea but apply it to a real world problem is a crucial piece of her education.

“That kind of direct learning was a really incredible experience,” she said. “Now we have to ask, how is this translated in the future? How can we keep this in mind and also educate others?”

This Week's Circulars