Soon, there will be such a method. A pair of engineers in London have come up with a “building in a bag” — a sack of cement-impregnated fabric. To erect the structure, all you have to do is add water to the bag and inflate it with air.

Twelve hours later the Nissen-shaped shelter is dried out and ready for use.



The structure is intended to improve upon two current methods of providing emergency shelter: tents, which provide only poor protection, or prefabricated, portable buildings that are expensive and difficult to transport. Dubbed the Concrete Canvas, the shelter incorporates the best aspects of both forms. It is almost as easy to transport as a tent, but is as durable and secure as a portable building.



The inventors are engineers pursuing a master’s degree in industrial design engineering at the Royal College of Art in London. William Crawford and Peter Brewin came up with the idea when they were thinking of an entry for the annual British Cement Association competition for new and innovative uses of concrete.



They thought of an inflatable concrete tent after hearing about inflatable structures that are built around broken gas pipes to carry out repairs.



“This gave us the idea of making a giant concrete eggshell for a shelter, using inflation to optimize the structure for a compressive load,” said Brewin. “Eggs are entirely compressive structures with enormous strength for a very thin wall.”



The idea won second prize in the cement association competition in 2004. Crawford and Brewin, who are both engineers and have worked, respectively, for the Ministry of Defense and as an officer in the British Army, were also inspired by the plaster-of paris-impregnated bandages used to set broken bones.



Crawford said he and Brewin have been developing the concept for 16 months and made eight full prototypes at one-eighth scale.



The inventors filed a patent, which covers the concept of creating structures using a cement-impregnated cloth bonded to an inflatable inner surface. Full-scale production is planned and could take off soon, as Concrete Canvas is short-listed for the New Business Challenge run by Imperial College London and the Tanaka Business School. The winner of the £25,000 ($48,000) prize will be announced next week.



The idea has already garnered several other awards, including the British Standards Institute Sustainable Design Award. This funded a trip to Uganda last year.



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