Ship to Shanty

All the comforts of home. Senior engineering students transform a shipping container into sustainable housing for the urban poor in South Africa.

It was Wednesday afternoon, and Calvin’s senior engineering majors were restoring order to the two wings of the engineering building, the site of Senior Projects Night—the annual student showcase of engineering ingenuity.

As his colleagues cleared tables of debris and pushed brooms, senior civil and environmental engineer Andrew Rescorla was out on the loading dock explaining why his team had converted a steel shipping container into a home. “I was down in South Africa a couple of years ago and saw these post-apartheid townships. There’s just a huge need for sustainable housing, and there will continue to be a need,” he said. 


The shipping container makes a good temporary housing solution for the world’s urban poor, Andrew said, and his team, named “Ship to Shanty,” equipped their model with some modern-day amenities: there’s a sink, a toilet, a living area, a ventilation system, a sewage system and a basic water treatment system. The unit even had a garden on the roof. 

Mechanical engineer Alex Boelkins was particularly enthusiastic about the water treatment unit, which converts water collected in a barrel on the roof into drinking water: “It was symbolic that our home could take dirty water and make it clean and safe,” he said.

There were some unforeseen challenges to the project, said Katrina Denny, another civil and environmental concentrator—such as cutting out spaces for windows. “In the prototype construction, we were definitely thinking things would go easier than they did,” she said, laughing.

Nevertheless, the Ship to Shanty crew was pleased with their prototype, a completed version of which would cost $5,000. “Using a shipping container for (permanent) housing doesn’t make sense,” said Andrew, “but using it for short-term, temporary housing does make sense.”


The shanty project not only makes sense, it presents the students with a real-world engineering challenge—which is the whole point of senior design projects, said Calvin engineering professor Aubrey Sykes. “It causes students to put their skills and education together on an unstructured problem, unlike the homework they’ve experienced,” he said.

VERGE: spring 2011

First-Year Experience