Installation of ReFRAME x FRAME in Hermann Park. Photo: Patrick Peters.

ReFRAME: How Unwanted Cubicles Became Emergency Housing

In 2011 alone, the Environmental Protection Agency noted that more than 22 billion pounds of furniture and furnishings and another 22 billion pounds of ferrous metals, much of which is found in office furniture, were discarded in the U.S. waste stream. Carole Nicholson, a regional A&D workplace manager for Allsteel, the world’s second-largest manufacturer of office products, was acutely aware of these figures. “Fifteen or 20 years ago there was a big segment of the market for used office furniture. But now there’s so much of it that people don’t want to deal with it,” she said. “It costs them money to take it away, so a lot of it ends up in landfills.” When Allsteel was contracted to replace the existing furniture in a 14-story office building in Canada, Nicholson, who lives in Houston, was struck with an idea.

Schematic Drawing of ReFRAME. Courtesy: UH.

She knew that millions of people, displaced by natural disasters or war, were in need of durable transitional housing. She reached out to the University of Houston and got in touch with Patrick Peters and Cheryl Beckett. Peters directs the Graduate Design/Build Studio in the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture; Beckett is an associate professor of graphic design in the School of Art. Peters and Beckett worked in collaboration with their graduate students. Almost a year after Nicholson presented the idea, ReFRAME, a prototype of durable transitional housing, was recently installed at Hermann Park.

The graduate students worked on a shoestring budget and were supported by Houston businesses to keep their costs low. Though the original projection was $800, the ReFRAME project expanded to about $6,000. Allsteel donated materials through their Houston distributor, Pioneer Contract Services, and the approximately 4,000-pound structure features modular expandable panel walls made from those repurposed cubicle frames.

ReFRAME was built up to code, able to withstand a three-second gust of wind up to 110 mph. In 200 square feet, ReFRAME contains a shower area, sleeping quarters, and a community space; it can house up to two people. The structure is seated on 20 heavy plastic pallets with 12 30-inch helical augers anchoring it to the ground. The butterfly roof, fitted with solar panels and a rain harvesting system, is made with galvanized steel sandwiched between more recycled frames.

Assembly in Keeland Center. Courtesy: Cheryl Beckett.

After the structure was built at the Burdette Keeland, Jr. Design Exploration Center, it was disassembled into 16 parts and transported to its new spot. The Hermann Park Conservancy offered the northwest edge of McGovern Lake across from Miller Outdoor Theater. ReFRAME is now covered in white and clear plastic panels with chevron-like cutouts. The design students created packaging and a narrative for the structure that is printed on the exterior coroplast, as well as a booklet and environmentally conscious slogans, which have been printed on parts of the framing that were left uncovered. The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts commissioned a site-specific audiovisual installation by UH professor Abinadi Meza inside ReFRAME. This draws onlookers in, where they can experience the confines of the space and imagine the lives of people who might be sheltered by it.

For the team, putting their skills to work for the greater good, a social cause, was satisfying, but having a public venue that can shine a spotlight on their work and incite dialogue in the community was the greatest reward. The idea for the ReFRAME structure could be duplicated and manipulated to serve a multitude of purposes. “It’s bringing a condition to a public that would never have thought of Allsteel framing—office framing—as this byproduct,” Beckett said. “The more the people know it’s a problem, the more they might have creative solutions themselves. The more you’re invested in what your city is doing or what your community is doing, the better your solutions are.”

Installation of ReFRAME roof. Courtesy: Cheryl Beckett.

By Nora Olabi

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