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A clinic in a pinch

Rice architecture students design portable structure for health care in Malawi

By Mike Williams
Rice News staff

A building in a backpack? No problem, according to Rice architecture students whose origami-like solution may fulfill a need identified by the university's Beyond Traditional Borders (BTB) program, part of Rice 360˚: Institute for Global Health Technologies.

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 Rice School of Architecture students -- from left, Sam Biroscak, Michael Matthews, Tucker Douglas and Vy Drouin-Le -- came up with the winning design in the spring charrette for a portable shelter for medical clinicians working in remote villages in Malawi. 
The "Accordion Clinic" was judged the best of three entries in a competition that concluded last week. The 44-pound structure is designed to unfold from a backpack in 10 minutes and would incorporate an examination table, a bench and a stool.

This portable building is intended to enhance a variation on Rice's Lab-in-a-Backpack, itself a marvel of efficiency for clinicians who travel to remote villages from centralized facilities to deliver health care. It contains all the tools and supplies a health worker needs the most for on-the-spot diagnosis and treatment, including a microscope, centrifuge, pulse oximeter and otoscope.

A compact version of the backpack was created by Rice for community health workers and health-surveillance assistants in Malawi who provide basic medical outreach in remote areas. The pack includes supplies for diagnosis and care, tailored to the specific responsibilities of their users. However, the pack lacks a component BTB would like to include: the clinic itself.

As so often happens at Rice, students took the lead, designing a structure to provide privacy for patients. Usually, BTB would draw upon a deep pool of talent in the university's various engineering disciplines. This time the push came from the Rice School of Architecture (RSA) in an effort organized by Baker College senior Kyle Byrne, with assistance from graduate student Clayton Fry.

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The "Accordion Clinic" was designed to unfold in 10 minutes into a clean and private space for health care workers and their patients in Malawi villages. 

Three teams of architecture students took on the challenge in a charrette, a competition that recreates the pressure-packed atmosphere of real-world practice by collapsing an entire design project into a little more than 48 hours.

The students raced to complete their projects by deadline, midnight Jan. 15, and presented their work to jurors from both RSA and BTB faculty Jan. 20. They quickly addressed the obvious question: Why not just bring a tent?

The answer is that a medical clinic, even a portable one, has specific needs. Furniture had to fit into the pack and the structure had to provide natural light, protection from dust and the elements and good ventilation as well as privacy. It had to have a floor, be tall enough to allow two people to stand and big enough to hold at least two adults and a child.

All of the student teams took the best qualities from current camping technology and adapted them to BTB's need. The project called "Under the Wing" used standard bungee-pole tent elements to incorporate private indoor and covered outdoor space. "Vertical Tent" used inflatable elements for support.

The winning team went for speed and on-site simplicity by using polyurethane fabric and poles permanently attached to each other and a six-step folding configuration enabled by locking hinges. "We knew we wanted the accordion action from the beginning," said team member Sam Biroscak. "We stumbled across this locking hinge called a Simplinge, and it was everything we were asking for.

"It's designed so the poles are set into it and the fabric is set over that. It doesn't catch the fabric, and you can easily release it," he said.

The pitch by the winning team -- RSA graduate students Biroscak, Vy Drouin-Le and Tucker Douglas and senior Michael Matthews -- impressed Matt Amdahl '11, a judge spending a year as a BTB program associate before starting graduate school.

"The winning team put a lot of thought into a plan to build the furniture (all with one-piece locking designs) within the clinic," Amdahl said. "That's arguably as important as the shelter itself. The tent itself seems like a simple, feasible way to get adequate space as well as a striking design. I think it's very clever and very creative."

Amdahl's next task is to find funds for a prototype, which has an estimated cost of $250, and students willing to take on construction.

Also judging were Mark Wamble, professor in the practice of architecture, BTB Director Penni Davila Hicks and RSA Wortham fellows Neeraj Bhatia and Bryony Roberts.