Devising Heated Micro-Shelters for the Homeless

With the return of frigid temperatures – and Code Blue alerts – comes the annual plight of homeless people facing overcrowded shelters and long nights on the street – and the real risk of dying from hypothermia. Two student teams from Carnegie Mellon University’s Integrated Innovation Institute devised novel and economically feasible solutions to temporary housing that the coldest cities should consider.

Of the nearly 578,424 homeless people living in the U.S., nearly one-third will spend cold winter nights on the street instead of a shelter.  With less than one week to research the problem and create easily erectable cold-weather shelter prototypes, the winning solutions came from interdisciplinary graduate teams bringing the rigor of engineering, design and business to the challenge.

The top winner, “Green Residence,” won $1,000 for an idea that would tap into lamppost plugs, defraying the cost with a daytime advertising “billboard” component. Second place, “Satellite Shelter,” earned a $600 prize by proposing the use of space technology to insulate a collapsible tented sleeping bag. (See below and described in greater detail in this video.)

“The Impact-A-Thon was a remarkable display of innovation at work,” said Jonathan Cagan, Ph.D., P.E., co-founder and director of the recently launched Integrated Innovation Institute, chaired professor of engineering, and originator of the social-impact, hack-a-thon-type event – part of the annual Innovation Palooza at the College of Engineering.

“These two winning entries underscore the inherent value of cross-training – engineering, design and business – accelerating the speed and pace of innovation. Both are viable, affordable solutions to the intractable problem of keeping homeless people warm in the lowest winter temperatures,” Cagan said.


The Winning Solutions:

First Place – “Green Residence” – From Ad Space to Shelter


Second Place – “Satellite Shelter” – Using Space Technology For a Warm Tent/Sleeping Bag



Cagan said he wasn’t at all surprised that the top winners came from the Integrated Innovation Institute.

“Increasingly, organizations recognize the impact that engineers, designers and marketers who understand one another’s thinking can have working together at the “fuzzy front end” of a project,” he said. “That was beautifully on display here.” 

The Institute is exploring ways to bring the two ideas to cities for possible implementation.