These futuristic-looking pods in the German city of Ulm are emergency shelters for the homeless to sleep in during the winter months
Florian, from the Ulmer Nest team, clarified that, strictly speaking, they didn’t create the project at all—someone else did. “We initially created sort of a ‘think tank’/’creative lab’ project as a team here in Ulm with the (maybe a little bit bold) idea that everyone can drop off their respective problem, whatever it may be, for us to solve it—basically we wanted to challenge ourselves a little bit, being a so far decently successful interdisciplinary team of six designers and technologists,” he explained.
“Before that, we chose some experts whose task was to decide which of the submitted problems we actually would have to work on, for 48 hours each. And then, the city of Ulm basically submitted their ‘problem’ which was something along the lines of, ‘We’ve got homeless people who can’t go to shelters, and we don’t want them to freeze to death—can you do something about this?’ And our experts selected this as a task for us to work on.”
“This was on a Thursday morning, at 8 am. By Friday evening, the basic concept of the Nests was born, a prototype showing off shape, functionality, and processes was there, even including a VR prototype to be able to experience what it feels like to be in one of the capsules—and we never changed anything substantial all of that later,” Florian told us what happened a couple of years ago.
He admitted that the initial vision went through a lot of “refinement, development, and testing” until it was ready to be tested “in the field” last winter. Florian shared with us the very first “Friday-evening” prototype which can be seen here on Instagram and here on Vimeo. The ‘nests’ are in the second year of being used and tested in Ulm and there’s still lots of improvement that’s being done.
The shelters are meant to be used only in emergencies and are not an alternative to regular housing
“For this winter, we modified details of our door in an effort to improve usability both for the people sleeping in the Nests and the Social Workers checking in on them. Also, we spent a good deal of time improving insulation and climate management, to be able to keep humidity and temperature at the best possible levels while operating on a limited budget of energy. Related to this, we also improved the connected-ness of the Nests by integrating them into the Ulm city’s own wireless IoT network,” the Ulmer Nest team member shared the high-tech details of the capsules.
Currently, the team is evaluating different future directions that they could take their prototype in. “We are still operating on a small-scale prototype level, and are looking into finding possible prospective user (cities) and ways of manufacturing bigger numbers of the Nests if there’s sufficient demand for it,” he said.
The ‘nests’ are still in their prototype phase and are continuously being developed by the entrepreneurs and design experts of Ulm
Florian revealed that the citizens of Ulm have received the project in a very positive manner. “We’ve even seen some effects that we didn’t dream of, like neighbors providing the overnight guests with hot tea in the morning and such. Also, city officials were always very supportive and positive about the project, which helped us a lot. And then there’s a lot of those small moments when working on the Nests out in the city, and people come up to say thank you (homeless and not homeless alike). That also means a lot actually,” he shared.
“Of course, there also has been occasional criticism, but mostly from the right-wing populism side, trying to set people in need against each other. We try to ignore that as much as possible, as there’s no common ground to argue on.”
Life might be hard (far harder for some of us than others), but it’s hardly all doom and gloom. Creative people like the entrepreneurs in Ulm are putting their heads together to come up with solutions to serious problems every single day. The initiative in Ulm, a city of over 126k inhabitants, is the perfect example of practical and socially conscious design and, frankly, it’s a small silver lining that gives hope for the future.
Some homeless people might not want to stay at regular shelters because of psychological reasons or because pets like dogs aren’t allowed inside. So the ‘nests’ are a perfect alternative.
The only downside is that there’s a limited number of them and that they’re put up only during winter. However, the designers explained that it’s not supposed to be an alternative living space. Rather, it’s a place to sleep during an emergency so that the homeless don’t get frostbite.
You’ll find the pods in Ulm only in winter when there’s a high chance that some homeless people can get frostbite
The Ulmer Nest project was started up at the request of the city of Ulm as part of their temporary problem-solving initiative “Wilhelmsbüro” in 2018. The team behind the project to help the homeless consisted of product and interface designers, as well as software and hardware developers.
Each ‘nest’ is still assembled by hand and their current cost is higher than it will be once the prototypes are done being improved. The pods are well-insulated, have solar panels installed in them, and even have enough space for luggage and a pet. The ‘nests’ are professionally cleaned after use to ensure that acceptable hygiene standards are maintained.
Some people still believe that the Ulmer Nests are an art project, but, even though they look great, they have a real, practical use that saves lives.