One man's trash could be another man's disaster relief housing.

That is the concept behind a design project in Houston involving recycled workstations from Allsteel and the University of Houston's Graduate Design/Build Collaborative team.

Built out of recycled workstation panel frames, the ReFRAME X FRAME project is part art, part experiment. Installed in Houston's Hermann Park, the structure serves as both an art pavilion and a trial study for building emergency housing that could be used in areas hit by natural disasters.

The ReFRAME structure married an idea conceived by an Allsteel manager with the sustainable design of the university's architecture and graphic communications students. One of the Art in the Park's temporary installations, ReFRAME will be in the park through 2014 in celebration of the park's 100th anniversary. 

"The ReFRAME X FRAME project is an innovative and extremely unexpected way of using discarded Allsteel panel systems," said Carole Nicholson, Allsteel's regional architecture and design workplace manager in Houston. The graduate students, she said "combined form and function to create a structure with far-reaching possibilities."

The project is the brainchild of Nicholson, who 2 1/2 years ago was working with her Allsteel colleagues on a large office renovation project in Canada. "A proposal came through and asked each manufacturer to provide for a way of disposing of (the used) furniture in a multi-story building. This project was such a significant size ... that the dealers were concerned with how to deal with such a significant amount of product."

At the same time, she watched a documentary on the January 2010 earthquake that ravaged Haiti that got her thinking about repurposing the cubicle panels produced by Allsteel, which is headquartered in Muscatine. "You don't realize what's involved in trying to bring in some kind of housing in a country that has been devastated by a natural disaster," she recalled in a phone interview. "I thought maybe we can use systems furniture to build emergency housing." 

As luck would have it, one of her friends, Patrick Peters, is the University of Houston's Graduate Design/Build Studio director and constantly is seeking sustainable architecture ideas for a design/build project for his students. After pitching her concept to him, Nicholson said ''He went and visited the (Allsteel) dealers in Houston to see the product and realized it was something he could do. But he didn't have a venue for putting the project together."

But fate stepped in again. "We had two invitations come to us that were unrelated from the other," Peters said. One was Nicholson's idea for building emergency housing out of the steel workstation panels. Second, "the Herman Park Conservancy was asking us to do a micropavilion for an art installation for the park's anniversary." 

"While the project allows us to help celebrate an important park, it also offers the possibility of doing good on a global level with old cube components,'' Peters said.

Pavilion projects are something his College of Architecture students have built for 24 years. "We collaborate and design a project in the community; many are now permanent," he said. For this project, he enlisted help from students in the university's School of Art Graphic Communications Program.

"This presented a challenge to them," Cheryl Beckett, associate professor, said of the 17 students on the Design/Build Collaborative project. Thinking of all the requirements, she said "First we tell them 'We want you to design a pavilion that could house art ... and we want you to use this office framing system. And think how it could be used for disaster housing.' There were many things to factor in simultaneously, especially in that short-term."

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Peters said the yearlong project provided real-life experiences for the students, who had to interview the client (Allsteel), conduct research, design the structure, and then fabricate and construct it.

It also had to be designed to house an artwork by Abinadi Meza, a sound and conceptual artist and one of the School of Art's professors. The work, "Vein of Sky,'' is a soundscape installation created in the recycled cubicle structure.

Rick Snyder, Allsteel's vice president-commercial contract, said the idea of Allsteel mass producing the concept and introducing it as alternative emergency housing still is being researched. "It's a long process. We're trying to determine is there a way to scale this that makes sense for everybody," he said. "We're in the evaluation stage, gathering the data ... "

But he added that it is exciting "to see something come from the marketplace, out in the field, not just in Muscatine, Iowa. But from one of our members feeling empowered and being empowered. Carole's passion and creativity really made this happen."

The university team also hopes to continue its research. Peters said there are discussions about keeping the structure in the park another year after the 2014 anniversary. "We have interest in having it at the university where we could continue our research," he added.

Once removed from the park, Peters said the structure could be enclosed and better analyzed for its use as an emergency housing unit. 

"One of the great things for the students from an architectural standpoint, is they were working with real materials of full size, forced to make decisions on the fly and developed a kind of confidence they can work through the problem through this experience," Peters said.