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University of Nebraska-Lincoln

November 27, 2017

Assistant Professor Nathan Bicak's homeless shelter prototype research was published in the September 2017 issue of Journal of Interior Design [JID]. The article titled, “The Design and Testing of a Student Prototyped Homeless Shelter” was written in collaboration with Dr. Joan Dickinson of Radford University. 

The genesis of the research project started as one of Dickinson’s second year interior design studio projects. The student teams were asked to design and prototype portable homeless shelters. Dickinson invited Bicak to assist with the project as a design build adviser and consultant because of his interest in improving the human condition and his experience with project construction and prototype development. 

The article presents an exploratory study detailing the students’ experiences and challenges designing, building and testing a portable shelter on a sample of homeless men to address the growing needs of the unsheltered.

Building the prototype wasn’t without hurdles. In order to meet the needs of the shelter dwellers, much consideration was needed for the selection and manipulation of appropriate materials. The design had to be portable, lightweight, low-cost and weatherproof. Several common structural and cladding materials were far too heavy and rigid to be transformed into a collapsible prototype.

In addition to material restrictions, other project outcomes surprised the researchers as well. For example feedback from the homeless participants who tested the shelter, thought that mobility shouldn’t be a key factor in the shelter design; rather, they all agreed that being able to collapse and hide it somewhere was more important. Interviews with the participants suggested that concepts of adaptability, control, privacy, security and dignity were important features to consider. This list of criteria varied somewhat from the students’ original research.

Bicak said research design exercises like this are great learning tools not only for students but for all designers. “Taking a design proposal through the prototype process is a powerful way to make ideas real and test them through actual applications. Plus, the participatory design process, helps students empathize with users who offer unique perspectives and experiences,” commented Bicak.

In the end, Bicak hopes projects like this will empower students and other designers to use the skills and design knowledge they have to respond to social problems and make a positive impact.

The project team consisted of Bicak, Dickinson and a student design team including: Chasity Boyd, Megan Dryer, Krissy Klingenberger and Kelsea Stafford.  Learn more about this project in the September 2017 issue of JID.

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