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Passing the Torch: USC student team engineers an emergency shelter for refugees

Living conditions are harsh in the refugee camp of Moria in Lesvos, Greece. It is crowded, 20,000 people are squeezed into a camp that’s barely large enough for 3,000. The weather is extreme: from frigid nights and snowy winters, to muggy, brutally hot summer days. Cardboard and plastic tarp provide little protection from the extreme temperatures for refugee families, and under poorly ventilated makeshift shelters the air remains perpetually damp and musty.

In October of last year, a class of USC students traveled to the Moria camp. As part of the course, Innovation in Engineering Design for Global Challenges, students interviewed refugees to learn directly about the challenges they face -- and how to help. One team zeroed in immediately on the tents: “After we witnessed the unbearable living conditions faced by refugees living outside in tents and makeshift structures, we knew there must be a space for innovation to improve the extreme temperature and humidity conditions in emergency shelters without sacrificing comfort,” says Laura Roed, a senior at USC’s Iovine and Young Academy and Chief Creative Officer of Torch.

And so Torch was born, a nonprofit that engineers low-cost, comfortable emergency shelters for refugees and people experiencing homelessness in Moria and worldwide. While Laura Roed and her classmates Jacob Totaro, Lauren Yen, Gianna Morena and Ayeshna Desai may have begun Torch as a class assignment, the semester-long project has progressively gained momentum ever since. “As students of a prestigious university with many resources and mentors, we knew we had the resources and potential to make a real impact in the world,” Roed explains. The team “saw Torch as an opportunity to push the boundaries of what students thought was possible. We wanted to innovate for a better world, not for a grade.”

Eight months and thirty-five prototypes later, the Torch team developed a tent to do just that. Using Aluminet, a special knitted screen material of metalized polymer used in industrial greenhouses, the Torch team was able to create an insulated tent that reflected outside heat, while using body heat to thermoregulate the inside. The result is a shelter that increases temperatures 5-10 °C in the cold, while the reflective Aluminet reflects the sun and cools the tent on hot days. Because the material is knitted, it is breathable enough to allow airflow, which reduces humidity within the tent by 5-10% — enough to make a real difference in comfort for refugee families. And unlike a commercial camping tent, Torch’s shelters are adaptable: they stretch to fit available space, and their tiled structure makes them easy and inexpensive to repair.

With a final prototype in hand, the team performed 80 hours of extreme weather testing: not only did the students put the tent through its paces in five different US states, but this past February, long after their class ended, the Torch team returned to Greece. They performed further testing there and distributed half a dozen prototypes to refugees for long-term testing.

Torch was born in The Innovation in Engineering Design for Global Challenges class, which emphasizes human-centered design, focusing on real people and their needs. Roed and company have taken that lesson to heart. At times, Roed confesses, it has been challenging to collect the data and feedback they needed: “We know the material and concept work in principle, but when working across distance, language barriers, and social boundaries, it is tough.”

Nonetheless, the refugees at Moria who tested the Torch tent reported that it really does help, and the response so far has likewise been positive from several organizations in Los Angeles and Greece. The team is even partnering with The People’s Concern in Los Angeles to distribute their emergency shelters to homeless people in Los Angeles this summer.

The outlook is bright for Torch: the nonprofit recently won the Iovine and Young Academy Social Impact prize. The first-place prize purse, $10,000, will allow the team to set bigger goals and perform more ambitious product and material development. Now, the group hopes to provide their product to 1,000 refugees before this winter. Roed says the team is more than ready to go beyond what they’ve already accomplished. "We are so thankful for this award and incredibly excited to see the future of Torch."