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Community and Q&A

Insulated homeless hut

mdesloge | Posted in General Questions on

I recently saw a news article on a “Conestoga Hut” – a temporary homeless shelter that is supposedly cheap and practical. The article claimed it was insulated, but all I could find was examples that used some sort of aluminized bubble wrap. The structure is basically hog panel wrapped in an arch over a plywood platform ( covered with bubble wrap and a tarp. I appreciated that these structures are not meant to be up to code, but rather to provide a secure, dry area. I just wondered if the readers here might be able to add some improvements to the structure. My first thoughts were to add ventilation to the door and possibly use a batt insulation between two tarps to get greater r-value.

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  1. Expert Member
    BILL WICHERS | | #1

    I’m not sure what the point is. This sounds like little more than a tent. The foil bubble wrap sounds a like like reflectix, so call it about R1 in cold weather, and somewhat better than that in hot, sunny weather where the radiant barrier part can be helpful.

    Why not use construction trailer style shelters here? There is also a company that converts semi trailers into bunks, showers, and other things that are needed in places like big state fairs or disaster areas. There is probably more than one company doing that, but I only know of the one that rented temporary shelters to the utility companies down in Florida and the keys during the last major hurricane a few years ago. They came in and built entire mobile/temporary towns basically, capable of housing and feeding a few hundred people. They had bunk trailers, bathroom/shower trailers, offices, and meal tents with food prep trailers. Separate power and water trailers serviced the others since they needed temporary water and power supplies too. It was very impressive.

    Seems to me there are better ways to put up temporary shelters than the insulated tent-like structure mentioned here. Another possibility would be to adapt old abandoned buildings.


  2. mdesloge | | #2

    I think the reasoning is that the shelters are low tech, low skill, individual shelters that can adapt to a variety of uses. Plumbing, trailers, or more permanent shelters might be more expensive or require greater skill. I was wondering if some improvements could be made to these at very low cost (I'm thinking the materials are about $500 or less for the basic hut) that wouldn't require much skill or equipment to install (no spray foam for example). With all the green building knowledge that's accumulated since these were designed (2013 I think), there must be some low cost effective improvements.

  3. Expert Member
    BILL WICHERS | | #3

    Maybe start with a basic Quonset hut and insulate it? Commercial buildings often use a sort of fiberglass blanket in a poly bag, it’s wide and flat, and stretch it across open ceilings supported by metal tubes. Since any of these quick’n’cheap structures seem to curved, flexible insulation is needed.

    The military works with this kind of thing a lot since they need quick and portable buildings. They usually are so constrained by the “cheap” part, but there may be some good ideas that could be borrowed from their stuff.


  4. burninate | | #4

    The reasoning is that some architecture/design student needed a keystone project to Help Save The World. So they latched on to a Cause that they thought architecture/design could solve: Poor people have no houses, so why not build them houses? I have seen literally thousands of such proposals.

    This is a ridiculous misunderstanding of the homeless problem in the US.

    The issue is not that they do not have a place to live. The issue is that they do not have legal permission to live anywhere. We have a restrictive system of land tenure that requires you to be able to devote most of a working class income for decades in order to be able to afford housing & transportation. If you can't hold down a job, a very large fraction of the population thinks that you deserve to die in a gutter.

    The issue is that nearby businesses and homeowners keep hiring men with guns to go remind the homeless that they don't have permission to live wherever they've set up. Structures get torn down, possessions get trashed. Sidewalks and vacant lots get cleared. Occasionally people get shot. Property values march on.

    You know what happens if the men with guns never come? If we just leave them alone? What does that look like? Every single slum neighborhood in the developing world. The place actual architecture is being done because there are simply a thousand times more people building houses, than in an equal-sized American city.
    People furnish their own needs out of what they can find or buy - whether that's a tent or a trailer or a tiny home or a shed. Once they have a place that they can call home, they can get a stable job, they can raise a family, they can integrate with society, they can systematically improve their shack one year at a time until it is every bit a middle class neighborhood.

    There's a great deal of additional social support that helps immensely if it's present, particularly with the problems of mental illness and addiction, but we hate that stuff because we collectively hate these people. They betray our Protestant ideal that 'Work shall set you free', and they challenge our just-world suppositions and make it uncomfortable to complain about our own station in life. To admit that any of us could become homeless is to admit our own frailty, to acknowledge the precariousness of our position. So they must be horrible, lazy, addicted, $racial_epithet, violent, et cetera. Anything to make them seem not just like us. A very large fraction of our power structure finds this quite convenient, because pitting the lower classes against each other tends to make them ignore the people at the top.

    In the US, some very intense subsidies for home-financing exist; The 30-year-mortgage and the home interest deduction are not natural economic happenstance, they were created to "encourage homeownership" and secondarily boost prices of existing homes. Currently owner-occupied home values are effectively the primary saving tool for most of the country, so nearly everybody has a vested interest in not letting the poor people live nearby and drop their property values. Instead, they must go up and up forever, or we'll all be bankrupt.

    So the only place these make any sense is in the developing world. But are they actually using appropriate materials for the developing world? Is this the most efficient way to do things? Probably not. Addressing the homeless problem has every issue that addressing the refugee problem has ( ), plus the prospect of men with guns coming to harass and destroy the neighborhood, plus the addiction and mental health issues..

    1. tommay | | #5

      Yup, every other organism on this planet lives and eats for free and has access to water. Let's start there first, work to sustain these basics first then all the extras later.

    2. Expert Member
      BILL WICHERS | | #6

      I think you’re looking at this backwards. I don’t think most people “hate” homeless people. I think most people would like to see things improve for the homeless. I think the problem is that when you see homeless people complaining they can’t get a job, but not bothering to walk into the McDonald’s across the street with a “help wanted” sign out front, that is a bit of a problem. I’m all for making sure these people have opportunities to improve their lives, but they need to put in some effort themselves towards this end too.


      1. burninate | | #11

        And if they can't/won't, they can die in the gutter. That is just and right in the eyes of a large fraction of Americans. That's the punishment for being too disinterested or incompetent or disabled to participate in capitalism. In the mean time, we need to shut down the libraries because the last one I was in stank of urine in the stairwell. Also destroy all the benches and sidewalks - because they might be used to sleep on. No, you know what, we can keep them but mount spikes on them.

        We have some of the most hostile conditions and attitudes in the world towards the indigent. Do you suppose that "Just walk into the McDonalds and ask for a job" is the much-heralded answer to that plight that nobody's thought of before?

        1. thrifttrust | | #22

          At the end of my street is a lovely park on a lovely lake. It had a lovely gazebo. Not any more. Heaven forbid anyone having a bench to sleep on with a roof over their head.

          Meanwhile, From 1885-1998 We had the Traverse City State Hospital. An architecturally gorgeous institution. It's enlightened motto was "beauty is therapy." Now it's a tourist attraction featuring high end condos and some of the most expensive restaurants in the city, and don't forget the "haunted asylum" tours through the service tunnels connecting the buildings. The homeless live in tents scattered about the city's many woodlands.

    3. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #7

      Nothing warms the cockles of an architect like giving a Ted-Talk on their plans to end homelessness using their latest design.

      1. Expert Member
        MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #9


        My comment was a dig at a certain type of architect, not your interest in a viable homeless shelter.

        I wish designs like this made a difference. but I can't say any of them have - and there are hundreds 0f similar ones that have been tried over the years. Carts to carry your belongings you can also sleep in, tents that self-erect. If they have all come and gone, it speaks to them not working - or perhaps that the lack of these temporary shelters isn't the problem.

        That we have homeless people at all is a reproach to us as a society. I wish I knew how to help solve the problem. I'm not at all sure shelters like that do much.

  5. mdesloge | | #8

    whoops - I must be on the wrong forum. sorry.

    1. burninate | | #10

      Matt - you're on the right forum, but unfortunately this is the sort of idea everybody has at some point in their education in design/architecture. We've heard (and often even sung) this song before.

      The problem isn't a lack of structures "suited to the homeless", the problem is that collectively, our decision is & has been to tear them down, and no individual plan to build them differently is going to change that. It would require a drastic political and economic change which changes the incentives and minds of the working and middle class in the US. Some of us are working on that. But this isn't the forum for *that*. And I'm sorry to say, the people in power today in the US are at peak comic-book villainy in regards to the homeless, publicly depersonalizing them and hinting at the benefits of some kind of anti-homeless pogrom.

  6. exeric | | #12

    I think conceptualizing ideas for helping the homeless are really needed. The basic problem for many people, we know who they are, is a lack of imagination. Basically the circumstances of ones birth into this world is a lottery. You could be like our Orange Leader with money falling into ones lap. Or you could be born into a family that is completely dysfunctional and lacking in any love or caring in the formative years when the psyche is at its most vulnerable. It is painful to go too far thinking this way because the most financially successful of us would quickly realize that there, but for the grace of God, (or Luck) they would be walking in far different circumstances. Its just too painful for many, not all, of the fortunate few to accept that their success rests on a large portion of their luck at birth. So these people want to ascribe any concern as people doing it for "effect", as in trying to be a thought leader and doing TED talks. Being cynical is just lazy and inhumane Malcolm.

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #13


      The last thing I'm interested in is a lecture on morality from you.

    2. capecodhaus | | #20

      To call POTUS our Orange Leader, is insulting to our nation. We've also had Black and White leadership in this country. Overall, results seem similar.

      1. exeric | | #21

        Yes, well, he is predominantly orange, at least the parts we see. It doesn't seem disrespectful unless one has something against orange. I don't. Other things about him I have a problem with.

        1. capecodhaus | | #23

          Maybe he lost a bet to Bob Kraft while tanning at Orchids of Asia. Lets not judge.

      2. thrifttrust | | #24

        ...crooked Hillary, sleeply Joe, shifty Schiff, Adam s**tt, low energy Jeb, slimeball Comey, lyin Ted, sneaky Dianne, Al frankenstein, fat Jerry, dummy Beto, cheatin' Obama, crazy Nancy, wacky Jacky, Mike pounce...

        And you say the term orange leader is an insult to our nation!?!

      3. thrifttrust | | #25

        Sorry, I can't let this go. We're talking about a man who heaps ridicule upon, and directs his immense power toward tearing down everything this site stands for.

        1. capecodhaus | | #26

          Take deep breaths! Im sure you can get a discounted rate on your asylum tour! Stay united!

  7. exeric | | #14

    The last thing I'm interested in is a lecture on morality from you."

    Rather than blaming the messenger as you like to do with me, it might help to consider what you have just said and just acting like homeless is too big a problem to tackle. Being technically proficient in green building and being a good contributor on that is no excuse for acting like an a-hole.

    Edit: Malcolm, it's good that you took down the comment about TED talks.

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #15


      Look again. My comment is still there.

      I'm a bit confused. Aren't you the Eric Habagger who left GBA saying he would never be back, was going to tell everyone, including Martin's employers, how corrupt he was? Or have I mistaken you for someone else?

  8. exeric | | #16

    Gaslighting much? I was trying to give you credit for editing your argument of ascribing selfish motives to people trying to help as being a prospective TED talk subscriber. I'm proud of you for taking it down. If only you could live in the now and pat yourself on the back for doing it instead of worrying that you are not perfect and someone might see that...

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #17

      Simple question. Was that you or not?

      Edit: And put your glasses on and look at Post #7. It's still there.

  9. exeric | | #18

    Yes, it was. I had a good reason though. A person who will remain nameless was blaming the people of Flint Michigan for the lead poisoning. I objected and was censured for it by editorial staff. I stand by that decision to have removed myself for that.

    I reserve the right to change my mind. I'm flexible when circumstances change as it appears to me it has at GBA. But I guess my returning is turning out to be inconvenient for you. However you do not seem to like to change and still see my objecting to blaming the people of Flint as being an affront.

  10. bigrig | | #19

    Lots of bad emotions below. Unfortunately a lot of the homeless in my area would not benefit from a permanent solution (provided a fixed home) that a lot of people like to suggest. Some are mentally unable to function at a level to work and maintain such a place. One large homeless camp I know of literally cannot have a fixed address in the area as they are registered sex offenders. There are many laws restricting them out of any living space within the city limits. Distances from schools, preschools, daycares, etc. Then there are the laws that prevent such small "non-fixed" places to be built and lived in. Lots of NIMBYs out there.

    Before a permanent solution can be found we need to address the underlying causes of homelessness.

    On to the material questions. As someone pointed out, R1 reflective insulation is not much better than nothing at all. As an alternative possibility has anyone considered contacting SIP manufacturers for use of their offcuts and door/window "plugs" that are cut out? The resulting buildings do not have to be large after all. Convert waste to a usable resource. Probably already thought out and rejected for a practical reason. Even buying blanks to cut down for such use would most likely not be overly expensive. And an R15 or R22 wall/ceiling/floor would be a huge improvement. Small battery + LED light + exhaust fan to improve habitability and moisture extraction. No reason you cannot built to a point that it would remain relatively comfortable to sub-freezing temps.

  11. cussnu2 | | #27

    This wasn’t a problem when the majority of these folks were institutionalized. They had a bed and a roof and three square meals a day and showers and bathrooms and on and on. They had all of their basic needs taken care of plus treatment for their conditions. Now, in our enlightened society where we. “ care” for them, they live like animals but, hey, at least they aren’t in an institution, right?

  12. walta100 | | #28

    Let’s be careful and try not to say and stay away from the political rants.

    The way I see this thread is using the fig leaf of “homeless hut” to inject politics into this green building forum. The way I see it homeless huts are not building and off topic.

    The camping industry has been thinking about and perfecting winter tents for over a hundred years. If there were cost effective ways to improve the tent that would have come to market and be a best seller years ago.

    Let’s stop feeding the troll.

    Let’s stop feeding the troll.

    Let’s stop feeding the troll.

    Let’s stop feeding the troll.

    Let’s stop feeding the troll.


  13. Expert Member
    MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #29

    Walter I agree, although that certainly wasn't the intent of Matt the OP. He asked a legitimate question without any intent I can see to inject politics into the discussion. The rest of us may be trolls, but he wasn't.

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