At SMU's Living Village, Harvey Lacey Demos a House Built One Plastic Bag At A Time

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Today marks the middle of SMU's Engineering & Humanity Week, where, as Robert already told you, students are field-testing some the latest in emergency shelter technology, cooking their meals outside and carrying their own water in an operation called the Living Village.

I dropped by this morning, where a few students were still snoozing inside various tents and about 18 different flavors of yurt -- LiteYurt, TekYurt, HexaYurt, any yurt you like. bcWorkshop's E & H Commissary was open for business selling Pop Chips from shelves in the converted shipping container, and students from Ursuline Academy were getting a lesson in carrying water jugs on their heads.

At the end of the row of shelters, Harvey Lacey was busy giving an enthusiastic pitch for his Ubuntu Blox, next to a mud-covered house walled entirely with his bricks of compacted plastic bags, bottles and Styrofoam.

Since we mentioned his invention last December, Lacey says he's been busy fine-tuning his ideas and courting interest from Stephanie Hunt at the Hunt Institute at SMU, hoping to recruit engineering students to test out his design and tweak it some more.

He had some blocks built already, but Lacey said it took about a month to build the house that's on display this week. He's got two of his grandsons, students at Oklahoma University, living in it this week.

Lacey demonstrated just how his open-source design works, tossing a few bundles of plastic shopping bags into his hand-powered bag compactor, and letting a volunteer turn the big steering wheel to punch them into shape. "People say this is terribly labor intensive," Lacey said. "There are parts of the world where work is considered opportunity."

Lacey said he imagined a $500 microloan could pay for one of his hand-cranked compactor designs, so in a place where landfills are packed with plastic bags, it would be easy to turn trash into wire-wrapped building blocks.

Lacey said he's heard from plenty of naysayers and skeptics already -- "They said, 'If this was such a good idea, somebody would've done it already," he recalled -- but he delivered a pretty polished pitch for his idea. "The end goal is that one day the people who are out picking up all the trash will be able to afford one of these houses," he said.

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