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Students deploy the Clean Hub prototype behind Ralph Rapson Hall.

Students unveil the Clean Hub prototype behind Ralph Rapson Hall this spring.

Clean Hub travels to New Orleans

Prototype structure designed to provide relief for refugees and disaster victims

By Rick Moore

June 22, 2007; updated July 5

For weeks it stood mysteriously on the "sand lot" behind Ralph Rapson Hall on the Twin Cities campus--this nondescript shipping container with no apparent purpose. Then on April 30 came the grand unveiling, when the container was transformed into a "clean hub," a structure designed by 16 U architecture students to provide sanitation services for victims of natural disasters.

Almost two months later, the Clean Hub prototype was sent off to its destination--a community park in New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward, an area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The Clean Hub is a portable, self-sustained structure that provides basic sanitation services. It contains a composting toilet and a 4,400-gallon water storage tank that is replenished by a rooftop tarp that catches rainwater. Electricity from solar panels powers the lights, water filtration system, and composting toilet.

The hub unfolds

View the animation of the Clean Hub prototype taking shape.

Under the direction of John Dwyer and Tom Westbrook, students in the Studio 4 architecture class started with an empty shipping container and, over the course of a semester, turned it into a structure capable of providing relief for people in great need.

"This will be the only functioning [sanitation] infrastructure in the whole neighborhood," said Dwyer.

According to Westbrook, the students were aided by the donation of many materials for the clean hub, including the shipping container itself, all of the steel, the toilet, solar panels, water tank, water filter, and sink. And the Clean Hub almost exclusively uses recycled or everyday materials, meaning the hub could be mass produced with relative ease and constructed on site using nearby materials.

For students, it was a chance to put their talents to work in producing something that may have a lasting legacy; in fact, FEMA is interested in the students' prototype.

Aaron Wilson, who worked on the "tank team," said that after three years of learning through books, it was wonderful to build something that will be used somewhere. "It was an amazing learning experience," he said.

"The students worked far more than they should have for this level of class," added Westbrook. What they were able to produce was "nothing short of a miracle."

Greta Gladney is a New Orleans community leader, and her family has lived in the Lower Ninth Ward for six generations near the site of the Clean Hub's deployment. She made the trip to Minneapolis for the initial unveiling of the structure, and proudly surveyed the process of the students "assembling" the hub, which took just under 50 minutes. "This is another example of the kindness of strangers helping with the rebuilding," Gladney said.