University of Minnesota architects work to aid Puerto Rico

Published 8:00 pm Sunday, July 15, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS — Researchers from the University of Minnesota are working with a university in Puerto Rico to change the way universities react to communities that have been affected by natural disasters.

Design researchers at the University’s School of Architecture have partnered with the University of Puerto Rico to develop ways to best utilize resources to provide aid following crises. The two schools are working to develop a solar station where communities can charge their electronic devices when electricity is not available, and are hoping to send it to the island in August.

Following Hurricane Maria, which struck the island in fall 2017, Jacob Mans, an assistant professor in the School of Architecture, wanted to help. Mans initiated the partnership with the hope of helping universities best utilize the resources they have to benefit impacted communities.

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“After Hurricane Maria, many universities converged in Puerto Rico to do everything from humanitarian work to research,” said Cecilio Ortiz Garcia, a professor from the University of Puerto Rico.

In June, students and faculty from the University of Minnesota, along with other U.S. universities, traveled to Puerto Rico for a conference on how colleges can engage with communities and provide aid.

“When the hurricane happened this last fall, there was a group of students in the School of Architecture who wanted to see the school have a response,” Mans said.

Mans traveled to Puerto Rico with students in March for a workshop and in June for a “Resiliency through Innovation in Sustainable Energy” conference, where they identified ways in which Puerto Ricans are solving their post-disaster infrastructure problems.

Ortiz Garcia said that universities that have come to provide aid in the past have had problems with cultural awareness and sensitivity when intervening, but the groups who attended RISE are working to change how universities engage with these communities.

“In terms of interventions, universities are not designed to be first responders in disasters,” said University of Puerto Rico professor Marla Perez Lugo.

But universities in Puerto Rico are working to utilize the resources they can offer.

Ortiz Garcia and Perez Lugo asked Mans if he and fellow researchers would take over a project that builds solar stations for the island to help as Puerto Rico struggles to provide electricity to the island following the hurricane.

“These are all very commendable efforts,” Ortiz Garcia said. “It became apparent to (Perez Lugo and I) that some sort of platform could actually help universities engage in communities in a more substantial and coordinated way… allowing for a more equal distribution of university resources in situations like these.”

The project, called Solar Oasis, is currently being redesigned by University of Minnesota architecture researchers. The University of Minnesota is hoping to place in the infrastructure in gathering spaces where people can charge their devices and reconnect with their communities by August.

Mans and Alex Heid, an adjunct instructor in the School of Architecture, are designing the station, which is made out of an aluminum frame and fits in a crate that can convert into part of its roof.

The researchers are hoping to send the completed station to Puerto Rico in August and present another station at the Minnesota State Fair.

“The colleagues from the School of Architecture in Minnesota are at the forefront of rethinking what an intervention is,” Perez Lugo said.