Helping Hands: Engineering a Better Cot for the Haven

by Claire Callahan | 4/3/19 2:10am

Being at Dartmouth can be all-consuming, as we worry about our own responsiblities and futures. Even walking into Hanover doesn’t really bring a lot of variety; it’s a small, wealthy town with many of its buildings owned by Dartmouth. But looking at the Upper Valley in its entirety pops our bubble and forces us to examine the community we’re in. Families right around us struggle every day, and the Upper Valley Haven has made it its mission to help. 

“It is a place where the mission and the values have been the same almost word for word since its beginning in 1980,” said Sara Kobylenski, the now-retired former director of the Haven. “It welcomes all who come through its doors, it treats people with dignity and respect, it’s frugal with its money and it works in concert with the community.”

The Haven has worked with various groups of Dartmouth students on different projects in the past, but Nat Healy ’20 discovered the Haven while searching for a project during the winter of 2018 for ENGS 21, “Introduction to Engineering.” He said he and his team recognized the Haven’s potential to be a Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering Project.

 When the DHE team asked Kobylenski about problems faced by the Haven, she mentioned that the cots in the seasonal shelter that they started in 2014 after the economic recession had harmful effects on the community.

 “The Upper Valley did better than many parts of the country, but it still had a profound impact on people’s ability to make their basic needs, so the Haven really had to step it up in terms of being a resource for people who were really struggling just to get by,” she said. “When I got to the Haven there was a family shelter and a plan to build a shelter for adults without children, and the capacity there was for 21 people, so we had that on board by 2010, but by 2014 it wasn’t enough. That was the winter that we started to run an overflow seasonal shelter.”

The employees of the Haven combined the seasonal shelter with the waiting area and café. The seasonal shelter, which is open for the entire winter, must be constructed every evening and taken down every morning.

 “This equipment experiences a great deal of handling,” Kobylenski said. “Any time you handle things that much, they’re going to be susceptible to damage.”

 Haven started out using old cots from the Red Cross and has transitioned to camping cots. Jennifer Fontaine, the current director of operations at the Haven, elaborated on the cots’ functionality.

 “[The cots are] made to be used going on a weekend camping trip — they’re not made for five months straight of use every single night,” Fontaine said. “The amount of use that we give them is not what they’re intended for. Pins come loose in them or crossbars need some supporting, they get wobbly. They fold up so all of those hinges become weak points when you’re folding and unfolding every day.”

 The employees of the Haven wanted the DHE engineers to create a stackable cot that would be space-efficient and durable, even with constant folding. Healy said that the stackable cots take up less room and require less effort to arrange than the current cots. They are also less bulky and more stable, and thus more comfortable to sleep on.

 “You have to be sure that you’re keeping everything clean,” Kobylenski said. “The nightmare of any shelter is insect infestations of any sort. The Haven has had a superior record of avoiding those things and we wanted to keep that. Things with very tiny cracks, very tiny spaces like wood and cloth, those are vulnerabilities.”

 Fontaine has been impressed with the zeal of the Dartmouth engineers.

 “They’re all young and creative and into problem solving,” she said. “Their first endeavor to help us with some of the issues was creating these clips that they 3D printed and some steel bars to help alleviate the swaying of the cot. That did significantly help the wobbliness and shifting of the cot, so that was great.”

 Healy thought the design of the cot clips represent the way DHE works, with continuous testing and trial-and-error. Healy explained that the team began by borrowing a cot from the Haven and testing it to identify its weak points. After a “no-holds-barred” brainstorming session, the team created several designs and prototyped them. The team then tested the designs by jumping on and off the cots and shaking them to see which prototypes were most stable. The team also went through a review process to select the most durable and flexible material before delivering these prototypes to the Haven for testing and feedback.

 This long and ever-changing process is characteristic of engineering. The students are constantly altering their designs and adapting to new problems, something that Kiera Jackson ‘22, the new co-leader of the project, mentioned.

 “It’s tempting to continue to make prototype iterations and test them to work out every little kink of the project, but if you actually want your product or idea to go out into the real world and help people, as is our goal in DHE, you have to know when it’s good enough,” Jackson said.

 Kobylenski sees broader implications of this new cot than solely improving the Haven’s seasonal shelter.

 “Our fantasy was that if they could come up with something that we could test at the Haven to see if it was good enough, sturdy enough, there could be a huge market for their product,” she said. “With all of the climate change and natural disasters, emergency shelters are opening more than ever before, and this could be a product that could meet the needs of that domain also. It could have bigger application and should be of interest to the inventing world.”

 Healy hoped Kobylenski was right, but there are patenting difficulties specific to undergraduate engineers.

 “Many previous ventures have been met with immediate enthusiasm, but later fade and eventually disappear,” he said. “It is especially difficult to maintain projects because we are students and thus only involved for a maximum of four years.”

 But Healy was determined for this project to be different.

 “We have been in contact with several Tuck students and professors about the possibility of pursuing DHE projects,” he said. “We believe that if we have a product that alleviates a community’s problem, it is our duty to make sure that product reaches as many communities in need as possible.”

 This is the first local project DHE has tackled during Healy’s time with the organization.

 “It’s easy for Dartmouth students to stay within Hanover’s bubble of health and wealth without noticing the problems in our surrounding area,” he said. “I think that DHE’s continued work with organizations like the Upper Valley Haven could not only make our members more accessible on the ground experience, but also open their eyes to how engineering can help the communities around them.”

 Jackson said that the humanitarian part of engineering is more than just math and requires people with different talents.

“We need people with strong communication skills and who are good at interviews, so we can collect data and feedback,” Jackson said. “We need designers to make sure the cot is aesthetically pleasing. We need someone who knows how to use a sewing machine ... and, of course, professional nappers to test the cot.”

Healy and Jackson hope to have created a solid cot for use by the Haven by the end of spring term. Fontaine is confident in their success. “I thoroughly predict them coming up with something that will work,” she said.

While Kobylenski has retired (although, we can’t be sure; she has tried to retire twice before and found herself working to help people yet again), she wonders at the serendipity of this partnership.

 “The fact that the students approached us, that they found that space to be connected to the community … I would call it the usual Haven magic,” she said.