Origami engineering inspires ‘Plate House’ refugee shelter

The Plate House is the first application of a new, folded shell structural system that in the future could be used by the UNHCR to house displaced refugees. It has been developed by Joe Gattas, a DPhil student in the Department of Engineering Science Special Structures Group, which is headed by Dr Zhong You. Joe’s inspiration comes from working in the emerging research discipline called origami engineering.

Joe’s research, funded by the MOD’s Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and the Australian John Monash Scholarship, uses origami engineering, the geometry and application of folded sheets, to address the difficulties in mass-manufacture, packaging, and on-site constructability of traditional clad-frame shelters. Such attributes are necessary for transitional shelters, which are used by the UN to house displaced refugee populations for long-term periods, but are difficult to achieve economically in typical hard-shell structures. Tents are therefore often used, although they are generally considered inadequate for long-term habitation.

Joe’s design is an origami-like plate assembly constructed from repeated, triple-layered modules. Compared to existing, single-layered folded shells, the triple-layering provides far superior strength and thermal insulation, allowing the entire structure to be fabricated from lighter, cheaper materials. The modules can be constructed from any convenient sheet material such as coated cardboard, polypropylene, timber or aluminium, with joints cut directly into the sheet during fabrication. This means no tools or additional connection components are needed for assembly. The structural form is also highly redundant, so plates can be replaced, upgraded, or repaired on site.

Origami Plate House

Joe Gattas said: “My work has a particular focus on the impact resistance of foldcores, which are origami-core sandwich panels studied by the aerospace industry. While developing core and face geometry, we realised that faceting the face sheets would allow foldcores to be manufactured at architectural scales, as all surfaces in the structure could be simply manufactured from flat sheet stock. The main advantages that the folded shell form provides over other structural forms, namely ease of packaging, ease of fabrication, and high structural redundancy, seemed most advantageous for transitional shelters, so the Plate House was designed to meet UNHCR Transitional Shelter guidelines”.

He added: “Initial development established a set of core geometries and matching face geometries that would fit different geometric envelopes. Small and large-scale, arch prototypes were built, but development stalled, as many connection components were required to connect core and face sheets, which was uneconomical and difficult to assemble. Subsequent research into digital fabrication strategies led to a breakthrough in ‘connectionless’ joints which are incorporated directly into structural plates during manufacture. Thus the need for separate connecting components was eliminated and construction time and expense were drastically reduced. On-going research is looking at material and connection improvements, structural optimisation, and the integration of our parallel morphing origami panel research to create pre-assembled structures that can be instantly deployed on-site.

Plate House DesignFolding beamCardboard panel

UNHCR design geometry, steel morphing origami beam, and cardboard morphing origami panel.

The James Dyson International Design Award

Joe GattasThe Plate House was entered into the 2013 James Dyson Award. This is an international design award run by the James Dyson Foundation, James Dyson’s charitable trust, which celebrates, encourages and inspires the next generation of design engineers. Design engineers from 18 countries entered over 600 projects for the James Dyson Award 2013, and we are delighted to announce that the Plate House is a UK regional finalist. For more details about the Plate House please visit the James Dyson project page: http://www.jamesdysonaward.org/Projects/Project.aspx?ID=3459

Joe Gattas (Magdalen College) won the John Monash Scholarship (awarded to postgraduate students from Australia) and began his DPhil with the Special Structures Group at the Department in 2010.

For more information about Joe’s research please visit: http://joegattas.com/research/