Designing Students : Art Center Packaging Class Creates Prototypes of Portable Homes for the Homeless

Times Staff Writer

With a couple of quick motions and a flick of the wrist, Sterling Marshall tucked his final exam under his arm, portfolio-style, to demonstrate how it could meet a homeless person’s need for a portable shelter.

He was carrying a human-sized, waterproof corrugated cardboard contraption that opened to form a tent for sleeping and closed into a compact, easy-to-carry package.

At the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Marshall’s creation passed the final exam for his advanced packaging class. He was among five graduating seniors assigned to produce individual shelters for the homeless.


“We went out to where the homeless were, to see where and how they slept,” said Marshall, a Pasadena resident. He said the students also checked with missions and agencies serving homeless people before they came up with five designs in a variety of materials.

The shelters had to withstand rain, wind and dirt, yet be lightweight, compact and able to maintain body warmth. They had to be made with inexpensive materials that would be durable for about a week.

Although the students’ involvement with the shelters ended with their designs, they said they hoped manufacturers and donors of materials would produce the shelters, which could be distributed by missions, food kitchens and other relief organizations.

Marshall said the students targeted a particular type of homeless person--"those who come here looking for a better way of life and happen to be sleeping under cars or park benches for a few days until they can find employment.

“We don’t want to promote the homeless situation, we just want to give a helping hand.”

John Ochoa, executive director of the Greater Los Angeles Partnership for the Homeless, an organization of agencies and community leaders offering aid to the homeless, lauded the students’ efforts.

“I’m excited about what I hear,” Ochoa said when told of the project. “We never have received such a proposal but would be interested in looking into what these students have done. If they would like to meet with me, I would be delighted.”

Ochoa said he was especially pleased that students showed an interest in the homeless. “That probably is more important than the product itself,” he said.

Marshall’s cardboard “tent” was painted with a camouflage design that would blend with urban surroundings but would be easily identifiable and not mistaken as “just another piece of cardboard.” Strips of Velcro keep it in shape. He estimated the manufacturing cost at $20.

Lisa Ashworth designed a garment that looked like a spacesuit, complete with an inflatable hood to serve as a pillow, using Mylar, a thin but strong material. The shiny silver suit could be compacted to the size of a fist and would cost an estimated $5, she said. “Sometimes homeless people have to move in a hurry, and they could walk away in this,” she said.

A resident of Newport Beach, Ashworth said her inspiration for a protective suit first came three years ago when she was visiting San Francisco.

“I was so shocked to see girls my age sleeping on public bathroom floors,” she said. “Since then I’ve wanted to do something to help.”

Similar Designs

Richard Wilks of San Diego and Gregorio Amaro of El Paso, Tex., made shelters of polyfoam that looked like sleeping bags. Each weighed about five pounds and would cost about $15 to manufacture.

David Clark of Burley, Ida., produced what appeared to be an attache case--a black box with a handle that stretched into a human-sized accordion-pleated tunnel. It had a built-in foam pad and was sealed against the elements with a wax spray. Clark estimated its cost at $15.

Although graduating and about to begin new jobs, the students said they hoped to continue their efforts.

“I’ve always been emotionally involved with poor people, so this is what I’ll pursue,” Amaro said.

“The is the direction I want to go,” Wilks said.