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Penn State-Designed ‘Apparatus X’ Will Help Restore New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward

After he graduates from Penn State with a Master’s in Architecture, Aaron Wertman will get into an RV, turn the ignition over, and drive until he reaches New Orleans.

But he won’t be parking at the charming hotels in the French Quarter, or stopping to grab a few Beignets. Wertman is headed straight for the Lower 9th Ward, an area that, after being devastated by the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, has been left to its own devices. It’s a neighborhood that has been neglected, according to Wertman, by the powers that were sworn to rehabilitate it.

“It’s been more than eight years, and out of 14,000 displaced people formerly living in the Lower 9thWard, only 3,000 have returned,” he said.It’s the highest amount of federally-funded aid that’s ever been given to a single disaster in the US, and yet most of the money, due to corruption, has gone to the richer communities.”

Wertman, when writing his undergraduate thesis in architecture, first noticed the unfortunate reality that economically disadvantaged residents of the Lower 9th Ward are forced to face, and was determined to find a solution to this one central issue: how can we, as a society, empower the economically neglected?

The RV that Wertman will be driving to the Lower 9th Ward is no ordinary one—it’s a carefully engineered, adaptable tool for empowering disaster victims resulting from months of effort by a team of over 20 students at both the Penn State Engineers for a Sustainable World and the School of Architecture.

Known as Apparatus X, the RV has three major functions:

  • It can expand into a construction workspace;
  • It can function as a self-sustained*, mobile design studio and serve as a mobile living unit for an architect, engineer, or contractor;
  • It can engage and empower communities that have experienced devastation as a result of disasters.

*Apparatus X is powered using solar panels on its roof and battery systems located under its floor, and can even produce clean water through a collection-and-filtration system.

By combining these three functions — living space, working space, and community space — Wertman, engineer Joshua Kessler, and the team have reduced the costs, space, and labor necessary for rehabilitation of disaster-struck areas.

In New Orleans, Wertman and his collaborators have partnered with the Lower 9th Ward Village, a non-profit organization that helps Katrina victims empower themselves.

“The idea is based on an engagement process and basically acting as an enabler, not as a service provider,” Wertman said. “We’re not going to build a house for [Katrina victims], but we’ll build a house with [them].”

Looking to fund its New Orleans-bound prototype, Apparatus X launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $15,000 last Wednesday, which has raised $5,000 thus far. The money raised will go toward building materials for the RV, the frame and designs for which have already been completed.

Beyond funding their first prototype emergency relief RVs — Apparatus X hopes that, someday, it will be working with a fleet of such RVs — Wertman and Kessler are also soliciting future volunteers for their project, reasoning that not all Penn Staters will be able to contribute monetarily.

“As college students, we can’t spend money for fundraisers a lot of the time—we pay to go to school,” Kessler said.  “What we do have is time—we do service trips, and alternative spring breaks. The lower Ninth Ward Village already provides these services. We’re providing a channel for students to become a part of something.”

Wertman and Kessler urge students at Penn State and around the country to consider a Spring Break with Apparatus X and other charities—and more groups are jumping onboard with the idea. IBM and Boeing have both sponsored the team, with several other contracting companies giving their approval, too.

So what does Wertman have to say to the critics? What is his response to those who have said that his post-graduation plans pale in the face of his 7-year journey to become an architect, or even that his fervent service-orientation cannot bear a similar fruit to what he could expect in the commercial world?

“To me, the experience of working and engaging students has been the purpose of my education,” Wertman said. “It might not be as glamorous as other things, but it’s about empowering those that have been forgotten.”

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