Miko Peled and Nader Elbanna,
an Israeli and a Palestinian, work
together in San Diego to send
wheelchairs to children
in the Middle East.
Concrete Solutions: Crawford and Brewin with one of their designs
By Jennie Yabroff | NEWSWEEK
Apr 14, 2008 Issue

Peter Brewin and William Crawford were visiting a refugee camp in northern
Uganda in 2004 when a tropical storm broke. Within 20 minutes the dining tent had
flooded as rain washed in, leaked under fly sheets and soaked into the mud floors.
"The tent became filled with water, and all the children rushed out in search of
shelter," Brewin says. He and Crawford saw huts elsewhere in Uganda that were
little more than wooden frames covered with plastic sheeting. Residents
complained of how easily members of the rebel-led Lord's Resistance Army could
set fire to these flimsy structures, or break into them and kidnap children to add to
their ranks. The pair visited a World Food Program storage center, where thieves
had cut through the soft-skinned walls to steal supplies, leaving behind graffiti
praising bloodthirsty LRA leader Joseph Kony.

The trip gave the young men—both are now 28—pause. Back home in London
they had developed a new, superstrong material for a design competition at their
school, London's Royal College of Art. They called it concrete canvas, and they
used it to form rapidly deploying structures that looked something like igloos. But,
says Crawford, "it wasn't until we traveled to Uganda and spoke to aid agencies
that we realized [its] full potential." Now, says Brewin, "we're most interested in the
humanitarian applications."

There are more than 33 million refugees and internally displaced persons
worldwide, many of them crowded into camps that lack secure, insulated shelters
and permanent infrastructure for staff and supplies. In extreme climates such as
Afghanistan's, a refugee can die of exposure faster than hunger, and traditional
soft-skinned fabric tents, which are difficult to insulate and are vulnerable to wind,
can last as little as three weeks. More permanent shelters are hard to transport
and take time to assemble. As the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, which left 3 million
homeless, and Hurricane Katrina, which displaced tens of thousands, showed,
refugees sometimes need long-term shelters that can be erected fast. "Putting up
a raggedy old tent just isn't any good anymore," says UNICEF spokesperson
Patrick McCormick. The group is one of several aid organizations intrigued by the
possibilities of concrete canvas.

The son of an architect, Crawford grew up traveling the globe. "Living in a variety
of countries, some of which were relatively young developing nations, gave me an
insight for the way different people live," he says. He met Brewin, who had spent a
year as an officer with the Royal Engineers in the British Army, at the Royal
College of Art, where they were both studying industrial design. The two partnered
on several design competitions, including a 2004 one sponsored by the British
Cement Association to develop innovative uses for cement. "We had an awful lot of
those 'Aha!' moments," says Brewin. "But you know you're on to something when
you come to one where you can't find a reason why it won't work."

Concrete canvas is made of cement-impregnated fabric folded into a plastic sack.
After the fabric is saturated with water, the structure is inflated, and dries to form
an impermeable shell. The shelters can be sterilized (for use as an operating
theater), secured with a locking door, insulated with earth or sandbags or
ventilated with windows cut out of the skin. They come in three sizes ranging from
52 to 177 square feet of floor space, and can be joined to form larger structures to
store food, equipment and even vehicles. The purpose of the structure depends
largely on climate, says Crawford. "In Africa, where the fabric tents are often
adequate, they're going to be most appropriate for key infrastructure like medical
centers, storage centers, offices for aid agencies and long-term accommodations
for staff," he says. "But in extreme environments they really come into their own as

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