Permaculturalist and designer Jae Rhim Lee worked as a visiting lecturer with MIT students on this “FEMA trailer design challenge”. The project explored the historical social and ecological story of the FEMA trailer and then collaboratively reinvented the trailer using permaculture principals.
The “Armadillo” is a “green” converted travel trailer that was originally one of the thousands of surplus FEMA trailers purchased for deployment on the Gulf Coast as temporary housing in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The Armadillo is the result of the year-long collaborative art project, the MIT FEMA Trailer Project in which faculty and students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Visual Arts Program transformed a surplus FEMA trailer into a “green” mobile composting center with vertical gardens, rainwater catchment system, permaculture library, and indoor multipurpose space. The trailer has been dubbed the “Armadillo” for its ribbed retractable shell.
“The Armadillo is both a practical tool and a metaphor for how disaster can be transformed into a tool for environmental and community change.” – Jae Rhim Lee, Visiting Lecturer, MIT Visual Arts Program and Director of the MIT FEMA Trailer Project.
The FEMA trailers have been tied to a host of issues surrounding indoor air quality health concerns, mental health problems in trailer parks, lack of affordable housing, and disaster management.
MIT students studied these issues and researched the environmental, political, and social history of the trailers under the direction of Jae Rhim Lee, an artist, permaculture designer and former consultant to the City of New Orleans Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Development. Students were then challenged to apply permaculture (a whole systems sustainable design approach) and environmental justice principles to the redesign and transformation of a single FEMA trailer into a model of urban sustainability and community change.
Once transformed, the next goal of the Project was to donate the transformed trailer to an organization to fulfill its community service mission. In January 2009, the MIT FEMA Trailer Project team chose Side Street Projects to receive the Armadillo after a nationwide search because of the non-profit’s commitment to art education and environmental responsibility.
On June 18, 2009, Side Street Projects will embark on a national tour with the Armadillo en route to its final destination in Pasadena, CA, where it will serve as a community digital lab, community garden, and composting center.
The FEMA Trailer Project was organized in conjunction with the course “Understanding the Problem: Artistic Practice as Research.” Through this class and the project, students were encouraged to develop critical artistic practice, rigorous academic research, team-based problem solving and service learning. Students were encouraged to focus on:
• understanding social conditions and contemporary issues from an expansive, cross-disciplinary perspective
• a 1:1 scale project with real-world applications
• hands-on skills training
• developing and instilling personal responsibility, accountability, and sustainability in addressing contemporary issues
• team-based learning and problem solving
• creativity and imagination in problem solving, broad and critical reflection on a complex topic and the ability to apply that knowledge.