Architecture grad student looks to rebuild New Orleans with Apparatus X

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Aaron Wertman wants to save the world and plans to save it with Apparatus X, his thesis project for his master of architecture degree at Penn State. Apparatus X is a recreational vehicle fitted with a solar power system, and water collection and purification system that makes it self-sustaining and independent from the grid when necessary. Wertman is in the process of converting it into a rolling workshop, tool trailer, design studio and a micro-living unit with the potential to serve as a first-response vehicle for natural disasters and to help rebuild communities in need of relief.

Wertman plans to take Apparatus X to New Orleans in August after he completes his degree. The Lower Ninth Ward Village, a nonprofit community center, will host Wertman and set up Apparatus X on its site to create a workshop area for repurposing and collecting materials, generating profit and creating work that can be installed into people’s homes. Wertman will provide design support, teach people to use the necessary tools and offer professional services to create architectural pieces through community engagement. The makers of the pieces would then be able to purchase the components that they have made for less than they could purchase something new.

"It’s sweat equity," said Wertman. "The work we put into repurposing materials lowers the cost. It is a self-motivating process and learning experience."

New Orleans is an ideal location for Apparatus X because the humid subtropical climate allows for work year-round and could eventually support a greenhouse system for purifying and treating wastewater. Wertman also emphasizes that although it has been almost nine years since Hurricane Katrina hit, New Orleans still needs support.

"New Orleans is an extreme case of displacement and a lack of response to a major issue, said Wertman. "It’s the biggest federal aid financial investment in U.S. history, and yet the most affected communities have not rebuilt despite their desire to do so. New Orleans has also been the city with the largest population growth of late. Some of those are people returning, but some of it is new growth.

"Many people question the decision to rebuild in an area of flood threat, but there are two things that they don’t understand: 1) the Lower Ninth Ward is one of the higher elevations in New Orleans, and it flooded due to the levee failure, and 2) land ownership in the Lower Ninth Ward is over 80 percent and people want to return to their homes. Wouldn’t you?"

Wertman has not been alone in his endeavors. An engineering capstone team of four students, an engineering student group called Engineers for a Sustainable World, and a group of architecture, landscape architecture and engineering students who are participating in an independent study course are helping to design and build Apparatus X. As part of this project, Wertman had to learn to teach.

"It's about finding that balance between telling someone what to do and having them figure it out for themselves, while supplying them with the tools to do so," he said.

Although Wertman has been building since high school, he worked in the woodshop over the summer and last semester as the student facilities manager learning to use all of the tools that he would be teaching people to use as part of this project. He also managed a $14,000 budget in that position and a $20,000 budget as the American Institute of Architecture Students chair for the Quad Conference, both good experiences for envisioning the budget for Apparatus X.

The trailer's highly visible location outside of the Stuckeman Family Building on campus has generated interest among passers-by, faculty and students. People stop to ask questions or to watch him working on it on weekends. His goal is to increase interest and engagement with the project, expanding his media presence to Facebook, Twitter, a website and a Kickstarter campaign.

Wertman hopes to keep Apparatus X connected to Penn State after his project is completed. He would like Apparatus X to foster a student outreach component for Penn State students who want to participate in short-term service over spring break or during the summer. As a "trouble-shooter" for various construction projects on church mission trips, Wertman is quite familiar with this service-learning scenario. He compares Apparatus X to other service-oriented opportunities such as Habitat for Humanity, aimed at young college students who want to make a difference.

"(As college students) we can’t always be philanthropic in terms of money, but we can do it in terms of service," Wertman explained. "But we don’t want to just build for people; we want to build with people to educate and empower through building."

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Last Updated March 21, 2014