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The Little Pallet House that Has the Potential to Make a Huge Difference around the World
Pallet House: Design for temporary housing made from old pallets seeks to meet humanitarian and refugee needs, earns recognition.
By Lisa Monroe
Date Posted: 4/3/2017
Design for temporary housing made from old pallets seeks to meet humanitarian and refugee needs, earns recognition.
We all know that most items that you can use, buy or sell can be shipped on a wooden pallet, but did you know that these same pallets could potentially be used to house the more than 65 million displaced or homeless people in the world?
The Pallet House is a small house designed by Suzan Wines and Azin Valy, partners at I-Beam Design in New York City. Their 250-square-foot model can easily be built by four to five people, even if they don’t have any building experience, with about 100 wooden shipping pallets, nails and basic hand tools in 4-5 days, and even faster with power tools.
The two originally came up with the idea for the Pallet House for a competition sponsored by Architecture for Humanity in 1999, in which competitors had to come up with a transitional housing design that could be used for refugees returning to Kosovo following the war there. The house had to fill the gap between temporary shelter and a permanent home, and had to last five years, the typical time it would take a family to rebuild a typical stone house in Kosovo.
I-Beam Design ended up winning an honorable mention for their Pallet House design, but almost didn’t enter that competition, because as the deadline drew closer, they couldn’t decide on the right material to use. They wanted to use something that was recycled and available anywhere, that could also be modular.
“As I was walking home, I tripped over a shipping pallet and thought that was the answer,” said Wines. “I took it back to the studio and Azin came in the next day and said, ‘I guess that’s what we’re building the house out of,’ and I said, ‘Of course.’”
“The idea was that pallets are ubiquitous,” Wines said. There are over 2 billion wooden shipping pallets in use each day in the United States, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
“They can be found anywhere in the world, and they are often plentiful when there is a disaster situation because they come with the delivery of different kinds of aids whether it be building materials, clothing, food, medicine, etc.,” Wines continued. “Then you’ve got all these pallets sitting in a trash heap and people burn them, but they could be used for a basic structure to make housing that can last longer than your basic tent.”
And while they could be built quickly for temporary housing, they can also be transported, and insulated using all types of materials from plastic sheathing to mud, or whatever indigenous material is readily available in an area, to easily convert to permanent housing. They can also be wired with electricity and plumbing.
“The fact that 20 million refugees could be housed with a year’s supply of recycled American pallets and that within 3-4 years all refugees can be housed provoked us to create the Pallet House Project,” Valy explained.
A prototype was not actually built for the Kosovo competition; however, later Valy, Wines and a contractor friend, decided to try to actually see what it would be like to build the Pallet House. They knew of some vacant land in the South Bronx, which they squatted, and using donated pallets, they built their first Pallet House. It was later used as shelter by a homeless man, before eventually it was taken down.
In New York City, there’s not a lot of land for building prototypes, Wines commented. “We couldn’t do it on the roof of our office building.”
Wines and Valy also built another prototype in a New York warehouse, and two others for exhibitions, one in Milan, Italy, in 2008 that focused on affordable housing, and the other in London in 2010 for an exhibition on sustainability sponsored by Prince Charles’ Royal Gardens.
Following the London exhibition, I-Beam Design sought to ship that prototype to Haiti to be used as a shelter following the earthquake there, but according to Wines, the receiving end was hard to sort out.
While the Pallet House concept can definitely be used in situations where refugees or disaster victims need housing, some issues can still get in the way. For example, negotiating land rights and politics and other issues in the middle of chaos on the receiving end has thus far been the main roadblock. These problems have prevented the Pallet House from being put to use on a large scale.
I-Beam Design sells the plans for their 250-square-foot Pallet House online for $75. “A lot of people do buy them and build them, mostly private people,” said Wines. They are very popular in places where people like to do their own thing, like Australia, New Zealand, and even rural areas of the U.S. Those who purchase the plans use the Pallet House for everything from schools, tiny houses and man caves to sheds and outhouses.
“We had a guy from the Congo who wanted to build 2,000 of them – an off-the-grid city,” Wines said.
The plans come with a full set of drawings, with an easy-to-follow “Ikea-like” system for connecting the pallets using studs that allows everything to line up and connect fairly well, she explained.
The plans don’t use dimensions so any size pallets can be used. “It’s just one-pallet, two-pallet, three-pallet,” Wines said. She and Valy used stringer pallets for the houses they built in the U.S. because those were readily available. And they used Euro pallets in Europe.
I-Beam Design has also tried to cooperate with a number of organizations that have shown interest in using their pallet houses for humanitarian purposes. For example, they worked with a contractor for Techo, a youth-led non-profit organization present in Latin America and the Caribbean. This contractor was already building houses using pallets, but were taking the pallets apart and using the wood. They were excited by the I-Beam Designs’ Pallet House design, which uses the entire pallet intact. “They kind of took the idea and went with it, and I don’t know how many houses they built with it exactly,” Wines added.
As another example, the firm was contacted recently by a young architect at a refugee camp in Greece trying to build pallet houses for schools.
“We don’t have a lot of manpower, but we are always interested in talking to people and partnering with people,” Wines said, explaining that she and Valy run a small architecture firm, and aren’t a non-profit. “But if we could combine resources, we could really get something done.”
While the Pallet House is only a small part of what they do at their architecture firm, it still holds special meaning for Wines and Valy. “It’s really important to us as human beings and professionals, if we can contribute in some way to improving the quality of life for people and the environment at the same time,” Wines said.
The Pallet House has the potential to address a huge need in the world today for housing. More than 60 million people were displaced from their homes as of the end of 2015, the highest number of displaced people since World War II, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This number accounts for 0.8% of the world’s population. The UNHCR’s count for displaced people in the world today is even higher, estimated to be more than 65 million.
“It’s obviously a really relevant topic and a really important subject matter that needs to be addressed and this seems like such a no-brainer,” Wines said. “One simple module of the pallet is able to address all the issues of living, depending upon how you configure it and assemble it. There seems to be a certain efficiency there.”