Making a difference by housing the homeless

How one RIT student is turning shipping containers into sustainable shelters

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A. Sue Weisler

Corey Mack spent his summer vacation researching ways to convert large shipping containers into low-cost, sustainable housing. He’s hoping that his research leads to the launch of a company that he would form in the Rochester area.

Corey Mack didn’t truly grasp the magnitude of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina right away.

It wasn’t until the fifth-year mechanical engineering technology major saw a documentary about the tragedy that reality set in. 

“I was a student at the time [Katrina hit] and sometimes it feels like you’re inside of a bubble and you don’t pay much attention to the news,” Mack says. “After I saw the documentary, I started reading books and began to realize what a bad situation it was.”

Mack learned that the government was using mobile travel trailers to house those who were left homeless. But he also read that these trailers were shoddily constructed and far from cost-effective. He set out to prove there was a better way.

And after spending the summer as a research fellow at RIT’s Center for Student Innovation, that’s exactly what he’s done.

Mack has devised a plan to mass-produce disaster relief homes by making them out of steel shipping containers. These 40-foot long, eight-foot-high containers are inexpensive because they are readily available. Mack says they are piling up at ports around the country because of the U.S. trade deficit. 

While he’s not the first to propose using these containers for housing purposes—they’ve already been used in Europe—Mack believes he’s developed an innovative way to develop the interior of the homes. Large molds, comprised of a malleable mix of composite materials, would be used to shape individual rooms. This mold would then be inserted into the container. 

Mack’s method allows the homes to be built cheaply—he envisions them retailing for $45 per square-foot—and in an environmentally friendly fashion.

“The homes, especially the cheapest ones, will be pretty green,” Mack says. “The container itself is recyclable. The floors will be made of bamboo or cork and glass windows are made from the windshields of wrecked cars.”

His research was presented at the Undergraduate Research and Innovation Symposium this summer. Mack says that the fellowship he won was largely responsible for the amount of progress he was able to make.

“It was a really good motivator,” Mack says. “If I did it on my own, I wouldn’t have been paid to do it (each fellow received a $3,000 stipend). And because RIT invested in me, I felt like I needed to have something to show for it.”

Mack has applied for a provisional patent that would prevent others from trying to imitate his idea while it’s being developed into a product. Meanwhile, he’s working on building a prototype to prove he can deliver what his research promises. And ultimately, he hopes to convert his research into a business—right here in Rochester.