NCPR receives grant, will create renewable conestoga hut shelter to combat homelessness

By: 
Taylor Newquist
Sports Editor

One man’s trash could be turned into another’s home—that is if you ask Robert Merrill, who along with Northport Community Preservation and Restoration, is working to develop a prototype for temporary shelters using paper byproduct.

Merrill is creating a winterized conestoga hut, an inexpensive, durable and wagon-shaped structure that has become a popular option for helping the homeless. The huts however, are not a viable solution for the colder conditions of Northeastern Washington.

“You can get away with that down there,” Merrill said of Blaine County, Oregon, where the idea of conestoga hut communities was popularized. "You don’t have four feet of snow, it’s not safe and you can’t keep it warm.”

Merrill’s idea is to use a material called fibercrete—a combination of paper, concrete, clay and construction grade lime--to insulate the huts in order to retain heat through the winter months. He and NCPR received a $10,000 grant to build a prototype of the structure in May, which he estimated should be done in September. 

His plan is double-pronged, to help those in need of shelter a chance to get back on their feet and demonstrate fibercrete to be a useful, renewable building material.

“If you see that tree out there, I can turn that tree into a piece of paper,” He said. “So why can’t I turn a piece of paper back into a tree?”

Fibercrete was first patented in 1906, being used seldomly because it was expensive to make. Merrill started using the substance in 1985 as a cheap alternative to insulating straw bales. Since then, he has done many projects with fibercrete, including teaching local youths how to apply it. He first started mixing it in a 50-gallon drum with two saw blades in it, but now has a much larger mixer he engineered, after salvaging the motor out of an old combine tractor.

“Nobody in 1906 would imagine that we would grow so incredibly wasteful,” Merrill said. “If you just measured all the stuff going by this building on the way to the landfill, you would find that 60% of everything going by this building could build houses. But the thought of building a house out of garbage hurts people’s feelings.” 

More-so than turning a profit with his prototype, Merrill wants to be able for charity organizations to widely produce the idea for those in need.

“My hope is to just take it to them and say this is a viable option,” He said. “We’re talking about the need and the COVID pandemic has upped the ante huge.”

The number of homeless people in the United States was 567,715 in 2019. Of those, 37,085 were veterans, 35,038 unaccompanied youth and 171,670 people in families. That number is the highest since 2014, and has been rising every year since 2016. Washington had a homeless population of 21,577 in 2019. Those numbers are sure to rise in 2020, as approximately 22 million jobs were lost during pandemic shutdowns across the country.

“If you go down to Habitat for Humanity and knock on the door and say I’m homeless, you’re instantly a year out at best,” Merrill said. “You don’t have a phone and you don’t have an address, so you aren’t actually a year out, you’re impossibly out. That first leap is huge, you can go live in a shelter. We’re after that first step and we have a great model.”

NCPR is involved in a number of other community projects in Northport, including managing the community garden. For more information and donations, visit ncpr-wa.square.site.

This is the third of a multi-week series called 'Hidden Stars', where the Statesman-Examiner aims to highlight those in the community who are serving others, but may not receive the recognition they deserve. If you would like to nominate someone to be featured, email editor@statesmanexaminer.com.

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