Humanitarian House International

A chance encounter at a Duck Biz Lunch leads to a compassionate non-profit venture

By UO communications specialist Greg Bolt

It may take a village to raise a child, but sometimes it takes a whole flock of Ducks to raise a village.

At least, that’s what a cadre of UO alumni is working toward in Denver. And they don’t have their sights set on just one village. They’re involved in a project that could help bring safe, clean, and durable housing to people displaced by war or disaster around the globe.

The project is called the HHi House, created by Humanitarian House International, and it’s the brainchild of retired Denver architect Stuart Ohlson, who was inspired to build a better shelter after seeing pictures of squalid tent camps in Haiti following the devastating earthquake in 2010. He’s refining a prototype shelter that not only could be a quick and relatively cheap alternative to tents but also could turn vast camps into functioning communities.

It’s an idea that caught the ear of UO alumnus Rob Melich ’74, a Louisville, Colorado, resident who owns Agile 3D Technology, a company that helps people bring new ideas and products to market. Melich, a member of the advisory board for the College of Arts and Sciences, heard about Ohlson and his prototype house at a Duck alumni gathering in Denver, the Denver Duck Biz Lunch, earlier this year put on by UO business graduate Greg Schowe, ’00.

Seeing the need for better shelter for the world’s most unfortunate, Melich decided to offer his expertise to help Ohlson get The HHI House off the ground. And “off the ground” is precisely what these shelters will be—the thing that sets Ohlson’s design apart is it uses floor panels that allow it to be raised off the ground and leveled, making it vastly more stable and sanitary than tents.

Melich soon met up with fellow Duck Hollis Jef Pirkey ’80, who works in video production in Denver and is HHI’s communications director. As the effort gained steam, UO grads Jessica Feldman ’09, architecture; Corey Jones ’03, law and music; and Brian Oehler, MBA, ‘12, also volunteered to help.

“The Duck network is what really allowed this to get going,” Melich said. “The question was: How can we use our knowledge to help these distressed folks?”

Unlike tents, Ohlson’s structure has a frame made from lengths of simple and inexpensive PVC pipe that connect using a multi-position locking hub Ohlson designed. When first deployed, a Tyvek fabric covering—complete with windows—goes over the frame, but that can be upgraded later with plastic wall and roof panels.

A single unit could house seven to nine people in a 180-square-foot enclosure that can withstand 80 mile per hour winds, Melich said. But what’s more, with larger modules for use as meeting space and community centers, the structures allow camps to become villages where people can exercise some self-governance and develop a sense of place.

“The idea is that you start with a preconceived picture of how the HHi House evolves from being a single structure to being part of a community,” Melich said.

Working with Ohlson and others, the Duck team is helping raise money to take the project to the next level, getting the prototype into field trials by this time next year. Feldman and Pirkey helped organize a crowdsourcing fundraiser on indiegogo that raised more than $5,000 toward a goal of $50,000, which would pay to manufacture enough floor panels to begin initial testing.

Ultimately, Melich said, the Ohlson structures should cost about $1,000 each, compared to $300 each for the tents now being used. But tents only last about six months and refugee camps often exist for more than 10 years, so the new design could be much more cost-effective over the long term.

But to get there, Humanitarian House needs supporters. Melich estimates they will need $300,000 to $400,000 to complete the field trial phase and actually bring the new shelters to market.

Humanitarian House recently completed the legal steps needed to become a nonprofit organization, which makes donations tax deductible. Melich and other supporters are hoping that will open the door to new and larger donations to keep the project moving.

“I think this will work,” Melich said. “What we’re trying to do now is build awareness. We hope people will look just a little closer at the lives and homes of the families in the current tent camps when they hear about this.”

For more information or to make a donation, visit HHI’s website.