Shelter Pod Finds a New Purpose

27 Jun, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong

Reshaping an old design for a new cause in ArchiCAD

Having earned an architecture scholarship in the United States, Lira Luis, AIA, born and raised in Quezon City, Philippines, found herself in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, looking out into the Valley of the Sun in Arizona. For the next several years she spent much of her time absorbing the principles of Frank Lloyd Wright at the legendary Taliesin school. In her apprenticeship years, she slept in a canvas tent pitched outside. That was how the school made sure its graduates remain connected to nature. Little did Luis know that, later in her career, her Taliesin camp experience would become the inspiration for an internationally recognized project: the Portable Transient Shelter Pod.

A Mariner’s Pod
Long before the Arizonian prairies became her campus, Luis was attending the University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines. In her homeland, the thriving port cities attracted an influx of migrant workers from the rural areas and the neighboring countries. Philippine News highlighted the plight of this underserved community in an article (“Filipino Team in the Finals of MIT’s Entrepreneurship Competition,” May 16, 2006).

 “[As] many as one million Filipinos a year spend months away from their home provinces and in Manila’s port areas looking for jobs as seafarers … While looking for job contracts, most Filipino seafarers live in shanties under depressed and undignified living conditions.”

In 2003, the Pier One Seaman’s Dorm, an organization that aimed to provide the seafarers with affordable housing, came to notice Luis's ideas and knowledge about the built environment. The group quickly commissioned her to design an easily transportable living quarters.

The interior and exterior of Lira Luis’s Transient Shelter Pod. The design was originally intended for the homeless seafarers of the Philippines, but it may have found a new purpose as a prototype housing model for tsunami victims of Indonesia.

The Seaman’s Living Quarters
In a blog entry in her online journal “Architecture Meets Life,” Luis wrote, “The design of the pods was developed utilizing building information modeling (BIM) technology, where everything is drawn parametrically. I used the software ArchiCAD by Graphisoft, where it allowed me to make design decisions on materials, height limitations, and building connections, in the earliest phase of the project development.”

Describing her design process, Luis says, “I dabbled with SketchUp in the conceptual stage but later on found that it was almost easier to start and finish the whole project in ArchiCAD, since this program allowed me to get the precision I needed for the drawings, a function that is not available with SketchUp. For the presentation graphics, I used Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Freehand.”

Considering the oppressive heat and humidity of Asia, the indoor comfort of the resident emerged as one of the major concerns for the design. “I had to analyze how the fresh air would come in and how the heat would dissipate,” Luis says. Using ArchiCAD’s daylight modeling function, she was able to analyze the heat gain inside the Pod during different times of the day at the intended site.


By conducting interior airflow and heat gain analyses, Lira Luis was able to design a structure conducive to the comfort of the resident -- a critical consideration in the harsh climate of Asia.

In a feature video by Graphisoft-Philippines (Arch Cad Tech Philippines, 2007 Featured Architect Users), Luis explains, “The advantage of using [BIM] is, it allows me to really think through the space and design it according to how the end user will be using it. I’m also able to explore the height limitation, to [get] the overall experience of what it’s like to be in that space. It allows me to create walkthroughs … and have a virtual building even before the physical prototype is developed.”

From Manila to Banda Aceh
The project stalled when the Seaman’s Dorm was unable to fund it any longer. But on December 26, 2004, a tsunami struck, causing an underwater earthquake measuring magnitude 9.3 in the Indian Ocean. Soon, the fate of Luis's pod took another turn -- quite literally. It headed south to Indonesia.

After discovering Luis’s design on the Open Architecture Network (OAN), an open-source architectural design portal, a relief organization from British Columbia quickly snatched up the pod (for more, read “Tech Trends: Architects without Borders,” Cadalyst, June 2007). They believe it could be used to house the tsunami victims, now displaced and in dire need of affordable housing. Luis would need to modify the pod that was originally intended for the docks of Manila so it could be redeployed on the beaches of Indonesia.

“I've received numerous emails via OAN from potential collaborators and even leads to proposals of newer projects at the grassroots level,” Luis notes. “The majority of them are at the inquiry phase at the moment.”

Casting the Net
Originally, the pod was supposed to be constructed indoors. Luis had previously envisioned the pod to be assembled and erected inside a much larger communal space, perhaps inside the Pier One Seaman’s Dorm.

If the same pod were to be used outdoors, on the beaches of Banda Aceh, for example, “The overall structure can remain the same, but the roofing material needs to be different,” Luis reasons. In the original indoor-construction design for the seafarers, Luis had used an airy fabric -- the kind commonly used for mosquito nets across Asia -- for the roof. For the outdoor version, she recommended a different lightweight roofing material.

“For texture-mapping in ArchiCAD, there was none in its library of materials that accurately depicts the mosquito net I specified,” Luis explains. “To simulate the look of this material, I went two ways: I used an existing library material in the program, then adjusted its properties until it simulated a net-effect look; and I also scanned an actual picture of the net and imported the image to the program’s library. Both resulted in the desired effect of a mosquito-net look. Then of course, I had them annotated via graphics layout for clarity.”

Dreams Materialized
In her video blog, Luis confesses, “In my first grade [class], when one of the teachers asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, without hesitation I answered, an architect. Sixteen years later, that’s exactly what I had become.”

She was the first Filipino architect to emerge from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. Since then, she has founded Atelier Lira Luis, a company that provides products and services that focus on changing the life character of the underprivileged through sustainable environments. Her Transient Shelter Pod was an award-winning entry for Metropolis magazine’s 2004 NEXT Generation design competition. In addition to ArchiCAD, Luis has studied and used form*Z, Autodesk 3ds Max, SketchUp, and Autodesk Revit. Her audio book Frankly Speaking: It's the Wright Way (Progressive Habitats Foundation, April 2006) is available from and all Target stores.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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