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Concrete tent gets mixed reviews from aid experts

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 27 Jan 2006 00:00 GMT
Author: Reuters
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LONDON (AlertNet)

- Two British engineers have scooped a global innovation award for an inflatable concrete tent, designed for rapid deployment in disaster zones, but aid workers differ on its practical viability.

The inventors, Peter Brewin and William Crawford, say they saw a need for the structure given the inadequate protection provided by tents in the aftermath of disasters such as the Pakistan earthquake.

'With shelter and medical facilities it is possible to rebuild shattered communities from day one of a crisis,' they said in a statement.

The tent, made from fabric impregnated with concrete, can be put up by an untrained person in 40 minutes. It takes 12 hours for the concrete to set, but once done, the tent can last for up to 10 years.

The two designers, both 26, developed so-called Concrete Canvas during an industrial engineering course at the Royal College of Art in London. Their efforts were rewarded on January 26 at a ceremony in New York with the presentation of the top prize at the Saatchi & Saatchi Award for World Changing Ideas.

Media reports say the invention has attracted interest from the United Nations and several international humanitarian agencies.

JUST ADD WATER

'If this was available now, we would buy 10 today,' Monica Castellarnau, a programme director at M'decins Sans Fronti'res, was quoted as saying by Wired News. Its combination of ease of assembly with durability has also drawn praise.

The logic of Concrete Canvas is simple. Each unit ' weighing 227 kg (500 lb), making it light enough to transport by plane or truck - comprises an inflatable plastic inner bubble, wrapped in the treated fabric and packed in a plastic sack.

To deploy the tent, the sack is first filled with 145 litres (32 gallons) of water, which is absorbed by the cloth. The sack is then cut open, the tent is unfolded and the plastic bubble is inflated. The canvas then moulds around the bubble and sets to form the solid infrastructure of the tent.

The finished shelter covers some 16 sq meters (172 sq feet) of floor space and the cost per unit is estimated at '1,100 ($2,100).

But some aid officials are not convinced.

'At first sight it looks marvellous,' said Rishi Ramrakha, a logistics officer at the British Red Cross Society. 'But the real practicalities look a bit difficult.'

According to Ramrakha, there are several central problems. First, the unit is too heavy to be carried easily into areas where there might not be access for aircraft or trucks. The second is the amount of water needed to erect each tent.

'Where are you going to get 145 litres in a disaster zone?' he asked.

Experts also point out that displaced populations are accommodated in temporary shelter because they will eventually be encouraged either to go back to where they came from, or to make homes and a new life in a better place.

The construction of permanent structures, particularly in conflict zones, could hamper that process, they say.

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