Hunt Institute to Build Third World Village on SMU Campus

Stephanie Hunt is building a village to inspire a generation


She wants people to see, touch, feel and then dream up solutions for some of the grittiest problems facing the impoverished world: durable housing, clean water and sanitation, roads and transportation systems and reliable green energy.

That's the mission of the Hunt Institute for Engineering & Humanity, which she and her husband, Hunter Hunt, established as part of Southern Methodist University's Lyle School of Engineering at the end of 2009.

What better way to draw attention and awareness, she figures, than to pitch a United Nations refugee tent on the SMU campus along with a dozen other disaster relief structures turned into housing, a commissary and shops.

The Living Village will be the centerpiece of the Hunt Institute's Engineering & Humanity Week 2011 from April 11-15.

Teams of students and volunteers will build the shelters and live in them for four nights. They'll attempt meals on a solar cooker and filter drinking water through solar systems.

They will, however, have access to modern conveniences in neighboring buildings.

They'll post video blogs about their experiences on the Hunt Institute website while undoubtedly praying for sunshine. Hunt hopes to bring solar-powered Wi-Fi to the village so that students can blog without leaving it.

And yes, there will be shopping. This is in the heart of University Park, after all.

A community market will sell products from micro-enterprises around the world, such as African jewelry, Peruvian textiles, and garments and accessories made from recycled aluminum can tabs by women in Brazil.

The village will be "off-grid" - meaning no wired electricity - except for the opening ceremony microphone and equipment needed to dedicate the village to the late Sargent Shriver, founder of the Peace Corps.

Hunt doesn't know how much it's going to cost but hopes to keep out-of-pocket expenses under $50,000.

"It is a labor of love, and quite a bit is pro bono," says Hunt, who decided to build a village after two museums turned down her requests to borrow their shelter exhibits.

'Highly diverse group'

The event will also include panel discussions, films, music and exhibits.

One speaker will be Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Iqbal Quadir, who created the Grameenphone in Bangladesh, a model for providing cellphone access in some of the world's poorest nations.

"There are a highly diverse group of people who are doing amazing things, and we wanted to highlight them," Hunt says. "This year's theme is redefining what's possible."

Structures will include a sandbag shelter; a ShelterBox (a box filled with a tent, emergency provisions, food, mini-stove and tools); two cargo containers turned into a food store and exhibition gallery, and a monolithic dome home from the Monolithic Dome Institute in Italy, Texas.

Harvey Lacey, who lives in Wylie, is building a home with bricks made from compressed plastic refuse. His labor force is student volunteers from Wylie High School.

A HabiHut shelter will be turned into a solar-powered water filtration and cellphone-charging station. It will be an upgraded, cheaper version of the ones that are already bringing clean water and telecommunications to remote areas of Kenya.

"People may have seen these structures on CNN, but almost nobody here has ever touched or been in one," Hunt says. "We want to put up this village like you would see in a developing country where people live on nothing."

She wants this to become an annual event and a prototype for such odysseys at other universities.

'More Angelina Jolie'

This is a stepping-out of sorts for Hunt, who is uncomfortable in the spotlight.

A friend recently suggested she become "more Angelina Jolie" when it comes to visibility. As a 43-year-old mother of 6-year-old triplets, she already has the kids.

Her Brad Pitt is Hunter Hunt, who's chairman and CEO of Hunt Consolidated Energy Inc., the holding company for Hunt Oil, Hunt Refining and Hunt Power companies.

She's getting free help with this Third World reality show from the architectural firm Gensler in Dallas, which is assembling the exhibits and designing the village layout.

"We knew we had to tell a story in a way that would capture people's attention," Hunt says. "My first thought was Judy."

Judy Pesek, the managing director at Gensler who oversaw the interior design of Hunt Consolidated's new corporate headquarters, hopped on the opportunity.

"The Hunt Institute is about transforming lives through innovation of products and new technologies for these underdeveloped countries where people live on $2 a day," she says. "Gensler believes in the power of design to transform lives and to make a difference. So our thinking aligned."

Gensler is currently designing a 128-story office tower in Shanghai. That's a far cry from transforming a cargo shipping container into a commissary.

Paul Manno, who is spearheading Gensler's village efforts, says that's precisely why he and his colleagues are having such fun.

"We do corporate office buildings and interiors and complex structures every day. All of a sudden, we're working with 8-by-10-foot HabiHuts. It challenges us into a different way of thinking."

And they aren't designing for longevity. What goes up Monday comes down Friday.

"We're trying to make sure that all of the parts and pieces have an afterlife," Manno says.

The composite mulch used for walkways will be spread throughout the campus landscape. That shipping container commissary will wind up in southern Dallas as a community garden and farmers market.

Hunt is thinking about next year's event even as she works manically on this one.

"It's all an adrenalin high," she says. "All these people are kindred spirits, yet so diverse. The energy is contagious."