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Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design are exploring the use of shipping containers in energy-efficient design for sustainable housing. The schools received $150,000 last month for the project through the Economic Development Administration, a U.S. Department of Commerce agency.

The project, called "Off the Grid," is inspired by the Box Office, the 2010 site of a Better World by Design conference event. Architects Peter Gill Case '83 and RISD alum Joe Haskett — who jointly submitted the proposal — designed and built the Box Office entirely out of shipping containers. It is the largest commercial building of its kind in the United States.

"It performs much better than a regular building," Case said."It uses half the energy … and the air quality is very good."

After finishing the building, Case and Haskett received numerous requests for more projects. Many suggested ideas for designing a residential space rather than an office building, or designing temporary housing that could be moved from place to place, Case said.

"The market asked us what's next," he added. The proposal incorporates their ideas for moveable, sustainable residential buildings.

The University will work with the business side of the project. The Rhode Island Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Brown, which offers services for new companies and supports business initiatives, will assist RISD and the architects of the project in making connections with business communities and attracting investors.

RISD is using its half of the federal funds for a class being taught this semester, called "Re-Box," that focuses on the main themes of sustainability, design and business using shipping containers.

Students have a wider point of view than professionals, said Markus Berger, a RISD assistant professor of interior architecture, who is co-teaching the course. With their diverse perspectives, students help add to and enhance established ideas or collaborate with others to develop more creative ideas.

The goal of the class is to "re-analyze, re-apply, re-vision" the use of shipping containers, said Peter Dean, senior critic of furniture design at RISD, who also co-teaches the class. Due to a trade imbalance — the U.S. imports more goods than it exports — there is a surplus of shipping containers in the U.S., and they are very cheap to obtain and use, he explained.

The class offers RISD students the rare opportunity to study business, design and sustainability together, Dean said. "If someone is making a design decision, they are also making a business decision and a sustainability decision," said Dean.

The class also looks at other aspects and conditions of living such as community, health, family and housing, Berger said.

Students from the class present their work and receive support, feedback and critiques from specialists and architects.

"Our role is to bring these ideas to market," said Brendan McNally, director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Case and Haskett hope to obtain ideas from RISD students' design exploration to enhance their projects.

The project has the potential to generate economic development and job growth in Rhode Island, Dean said. The state lacks a lot of resources, especially "green" or energy-independent resources, McNally said.

Reed and RISD President John Maeda initiated the idea of securing a federal grant for industrial development in Rhode Island and invited companies to submit proposals, and "Off the Grid" was chosen, Berger said.

For their future plans, they hope to develop a "prototype for residential or temporary building this fall or winter of 2011 or 2012," Case said.


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