Thinking Outside (and Building Inside) the Box: Team Transforms Conex for Healthcare Workers in Uganda

Builders, designers, doctors and refugees would all agree: constraints lead to creativity. When faced with limited resources, or time, or space—or all three, you have to adapt and innovate. Take nonprofit Pipeline Worldwide‘s “Battle of the Boxes” for example, a design and construction competition that will serve people in need. Three teams were challenged to convert shipping containers into housing for healthcare workers at refugee settlements in Uganda. Sundt and its partners on Team Sus-tainers put together quite the project.

exterior of shipping container painted green and yellow for sustainability
The paint job of the “Sus-tainers” container is inspired by sustainability, the focal point of its design. Project partners included Sundt Construction, RED Development, Cuningham Group, Westwood Professional Services, ASU, and Smith & Nephew. Aspen Construction donated the paint and labor to make the container’s interior and exterior look amazing.

The Need is Great; The Budget is Tight

The shipping containers will go to Palorinya refugee settlement, which houses over 130,000 people who have fled their homes to escape violence in neighboring South Sudan. Many lack clean water, basic goods, education and healthcare. Organizations like Pipeline Worldwide and their partner Medical Teams International are working to change that, but there are challenges. “The biggest obstacle for healthcare is inadequate housing for medical staff,” said team member Ken Kobs, Territory Manager for Smith & Nephew. “Four out of five healthcare workers here are living in tents or other temporary shelters.” Heat, rats, and other factors make recruiting and keeping qualified healthcare workers here a huge challenge.

Woman who is healthcare worker stands in tent living quarters at Palorinya refugee Camp
Most healthcare workers at Uganda’s refugee camps live in inadequate housing. The tents are not secure and don’t protect from harsh temperatures or pests.
photographer talks with a healthcare worker next to the tent where he is living
Pipeline Worldwide photographer Bruce Asiimwe (left) talks with a healthcare worker (right) next to the tent where he is living.

Back in the U.S., Sundt and our partners were given a 40-foot shipping container and a project budget of $15,000. The objective: to convert this into housing for six medical personnel. Also, it would need to serve as a prototype that would be sustainable and replicable with materials in Uganda. Pipeline Worldwide plans to re-purpose 50 shipping containers into staff housing by 2025. Lastly, the construction could not alter or puncture the structure of the container before its shipment—and, just to up the stakes, the units would have to be collapsible enough for the container to hold $300,000 worth of medical supplies being shipped to local hospitals.

What’s in the Box?

For one shipping container to check all of these boxes, the team had to get creative with commonly available materials. Also, they needed builders who’d seen a thing or two. Sundt employee-owners Sean Ray, Austin Nalwood, Josue Ponce, Darry Welker, and Rick Garcia stepped in. Each gave technical expertise on design, assisted with material procurement, and even personally fabricated many of the components.

“A big difference-maker was the UniStrut design,” said Sundt Project Manager and Pipeline Worldwide Board Member Andrew Wegner. “This is welded on to create a ceiling-mounted support structure for the living units’ movable walls. The UniStrut allows the whole container space to be modular and flexible. And it’s a building material you can find all over the world, including in Uganda.”

Craft Training Instructor Josue Ponce welds 2 inch square tube into a bed/desk combo
Craft Training Instructor Josue Ponce came up with the idea to use UniStrut metal channel and then welded it himself, as well as the bed/desk frames pictured here. “I’ve used Unistrut for so many applications in the past, namely hanging pipe,” said Josue. “It was the perfect fit for this context.”
example bed/desk combo inside living unit
The six living units consist of plywood partitions with pegboard walls for customizable shelving, a high window for privacy (to be cut and framed in upon arrival), and a bed/desk combo welded from 2-inch square tube.

“We built these units to last a long time,” said Andrew. “And the container is designed with individual privacy as well as community in mind,” he said, pointing to a rendering showing the centrally placed French doors and porch extension, additions to be made once the container is placed on its concrete slab in Uganda.

Is it Sustainable?—Replicable, Scalable, Energy-Efficient?

A closed format calls for an open-minded design team. Lots of forethought and engineering went into not only the model’s longevity but the ease of Ugandan builders duplicating it on site. Students from Engineers Without Borders at Arizona State University designed the shipping container’s roof. It consists of steel trusses and corrugated steel panels, pieces that will ship separately inside the container. On top, the roof will house a rainwater capture system and solar panels to power the whole unit. The two- by three-foot solar panels will generate 1,400 watt hours per day.

All possible efforts were made to ensure the security, privacy and comfort of occupants, while using building materials that would be affordable and accessible in Uganda. “It’s amazing to see this all come to fruition,” said Andrew. “To have all of our team members step up like they did, it just makes me really proud to serve with Pipeline Worldwide and to work for Sundt.”

steel trusses for roof

Results, Upcoming Events, and How You Can Help

The competition kicked off in August 2019 and concluded Thursday, May, 14, 2020. Nine judges including architects, developers, engineers, brokers, and interior designers determined the Best Overall winner. The three teams that participated were:

Sus-tainers: Sundt Construction, RED Development, Cuningham Group, Westwood Professional Services, ASU, and Smith & Nephew.

#1Team4Uganda: DMB, DWL Architects, McCarthy Building Companies, East Valley Institute of Technology, Clearway Energy, and HonorHealth

Team In A Box: Alter Group, Corgan, McCarthy Building Companies, Wespac, Grand Canyon University, West-MEC, Wood Patel and SMIL

The Best Overall winner was announced May 18, 2020 as #1Team4Uganda. Other awards include: Best in Design Excellence, Best in Sustainability, Best in Constructability, Best in Design Innovation (Object), MVP (Person), and People’s Choice. These will all be announced at Pipeline Worldwide’s annual event, Getting WELL Connected, on October 7, 2020.

If you’d like to attend, donate to the cause, or find other ways to help out, contact founder Jamie Nollette at Pipeline Worldwide is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit, and Sundt is proud to partner with them as well as our industry colleagues in making the vision behind Battle of the Boxes a reality.

close up of exterior of shipping container painted green and yellow for sustainability