December 6, 2017

Eclectic Collaboration Creates Instant House Project at JWMS

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED: Architecture and Design Professor Keisuke Kitagawa (right) and John Witherspoon Middle School (JWMS) Social Studies and Global Education Supervisor Tim Charleston show off the inflatable Instant House erected at JWMS on Friday as a prototype for a seventh-grade collaborative project on Puerto Rico and disaster relief. (Photo by Donald Gilpin)

By Donald Gilpin

Seventh-graders at John Witherspoon Middle School (JWMS) witnessed the power of collaboration last Friday morning as they gathered on the front lawn to participate in the creation of an Instant House, a 60-square-foot inflatable structure with the potential to be used for disaster and humanitarian relief all over the world.

The collaborators included Keisuke Kitagawa, visiting professor from Japan at Princeton University’s School of Architecture; Pinneo Construction co-owners Tom Pinneo and Chris Myers; North Pole Insulation Corporation; six innovative JWMS teachers on the IDEAS (Innovation, Design, Engineering, Arts, and Science) Team; JWMS administrators; and the seventh- graders working on their own design projects to help make a difference in the lives of Puerto Ricans devastated by Hurricane Maria.

Friday’s event was the culmination of a three-day workshop for the student designers and the embodiment of an idea that Kitagawa has been developing since 2011, when a tsunami in Japan dramatically brought to his attention the need for emergency temporary housing.

JWMS marketing and entrepreneur teacher Kelly Riely explained that the goal of the inter-departmental IDEAS team is “to expose our students to real world situations and provide the opportunity for them to think, create, and build through real life connections. Each year we focus on a subject area and develop lessons within our curricula to learn about the particular subject. This year our focus was Puerto Rico and the need of social entrepreneurship to help solve problems in the future.”

After a preliminary meeting with Kitagawa, who has children in sixth and fourth grades in the Princeton Public Schools, the team of six teachers, supported by Social Studies and Global Education Supervisor Tim Charleston and JWMS Principal Jason Burr, planned a three-day workshop for students to collaborate with Kitagawa in creating designs for sustainable homes for Princeton residents, then for Kitagawa to present to 100 seventh-grade students the story of his invention and development of Instant House, and finally the building of an Instant House on the JWMS front lawn.

Kitagawa, who has been teaching architecture and design in the Advanced Disaster Prevention Engineering Center at Nagoya Institute of Technology in Japan, has constructed an Instant House in Japan, but this is the first time in the United States. He hopes to expand his Instant House to address problems of millions of refugees and other homeless people around the world.

The Instant House, Kitagawa pointed out, has a number of attributes to recommend it, including light weight (about 30 pounds for a single room, 100 pounds for a larger structure) and low cost ( a few hundred dollars); compact packaging to make it easily portable; flexible material effective for all environmental conditions; easy construction; and quick installation (15 minutes for one room, two hours for housing for one family, and one day to install a 1,000-square-foot house).

The construction process, slightly abbreviated for the JWMS prototype on Friday, consists of setting the foundation infrastructure, inflating the 3D sheet balloon, securing the floor with pegs, spraying foam insulation from the inside, and completion.

“This was a first for us,” said Pinneo, who was approached by Kitagawa recently for help with construction and arranging the foam insulation. “We’d never done this before, but we’re game. We asked the insulation company, ‘Have you ever sprayed a teepee before?’”

He continued, “It was great. I hope it gains traction and awareness. It’s a great solution for how to handle the challenge of short-term housing. Who would have imagined that we would have linked up a visiting professor from Japan with a guy who spends most of his time spraying foam inside houses? It’s great to be a part of this project. We’d love to continue to spread the word and be involved.”

In addition to Riely, whose students are creating an infographic, a documentary, and a slideshow on Puerto Rico, JWMS teachers leading the project include food science teacher Jennifer Baumgartner, STEM coding teacher Lawrence Robtison, STEM robotics teacher Randolph Casey, visual arts teacher Claudia Luongo, and technology teacher Paul Skalka — all of whose students are engaged in Puerto Rico-related creative and scientific projects.

Most enthusiastic of all the collaborators were the seventh-graders themselves. “With all the disasters around the world, it’s great if people can find refuge,” said Matty Baglio, sizing up the Instant House. “It’s somewhere they can sleep and eat and survive for six months or a year until they can get back the resources they need. It puts the situation into perspective.”

When asked if he’d like to live in an Instant House, Baglio hesitated a moment, then replied, “If i needed to I would. It’s a great opportunity for anybody.”

Sara Carson commented on the value of the project, “I definitely learned a lot. This was very creative and smart.” Sarah Bielaus added, “This is really smart. It could be an efficient way to help people in need get access to shelter. I’m fascinated by how this little thing could provide so much warmth and protection.”