Cardborigami: Providing Shelter, Restoring Dignity With Cardboard

Tina Hovsepian began experimenting with folding cardboard emergency shelters while she was an architecture student at USC. Individual Cardborigami units can also be purchased for recreational purposes, such as beach shelters. . (Photo: Cardborigami)

Bikes. Shelving units. Cathedrals. Is there anything you can’t construct out of cheap, versatile, recyclable and surprisingly durable corrugated cardboard?

Following in the big-hearted footsteps of Pritzker Prize laureate Shigeru Ban, young Los Angeleno architect and social entrepreneur Tina Hovsepian has harnessed the multifaceted splendors of treated cardboard as part of a larger effort to improve the lives of others, particularly those displaced by natural disasters and those who, for one reason or another, find themselves living on the streets.

More specifically, the mission of 29-year-old Hovsepian and her nonprofit housing startup, Cardborigami, is to “provide instant space to protect people from the elements through innovation and design.” Although Cardborigami was founded in 2010 and has received a decent amount of press over the years, a lovely new Uproxx profile and the inclusion of Hovsepian as a member of the 2017 class of Forbes 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs go to show that her signature origami-inspired cardboard emergency shelters resonate just as strongly as they did back when Hovsepian dreamt up the idea as a social change-minded architecture student at the University of Southern California.

In fact, with Los Angeles’ homelessness epidemic growing more dire over the past couple of years (city leaders declared a homeless state of emergency in the fall of 2015), the urgent need for affordable and innovative temporary housing solutions is arguably even greater today than it was back when Hovsepian first began experimenting with cardboard as a means of supplying the denizens of Downtown L.A.’s notorious Skid Row — the Skid Row — with a more robust, easier-to-assemble and better-insulated alternative to tents.

Hovsepian tells Uproxx of her folding cardboard pop-up shelters, which measure roughly 6-feet-by-4-feet and are large enough to accommodate two sleeping adults: “Because of the folding pattern, it’s more structural than a tent is. It resists impact loads and wind loads much better, and when you’re inside, if it’s cold outside, it’ll be more warm. If it’s warm outside, it’ll be cooler inside.”

A federal report released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to Congress in November 2016 found that Los Angeles, for a second year in a row, has the nation’s largest population of chronically homeless people — around 13,000 individuals. Roughly 95 percent of L.A.'s homeless population lives outdoors and on the streets, making the naturally insulating properties of Hovsepian's cardboard shelters all the more vital.

Conceived in L.A. but global in scope

While early memories of passing through Skid Row, an area spanning 54 blocks, served as the direct impetus for Hovsepian to launch Cardborigami, (“I constantly witnessed homelessness,” she tells Uproxx of her L.A. upbringing), her vision extends well beyond the 90013 ZIP code, home to one of the largest stable populations of homeless people in the United States.

“Our vision with Cardborigami is really to have a global reach where we could provide these instant shelters to anyone that might need it, whether it’s due to poverty, natural disaster, refugee crises or whatever it may be,” Hovsepian explains. “That would be our long-term vision.”

Indeed, Cardborigami shelters were deployed to Nepal in the weeks after a catastrophic earthquake rocked the mountainous landlocked nation in April 2015. Hovsepian, who traveled to rural Nepal with the Cardborigami team to help with the rebuilding efforts, wrote for the Huffington Post in a 2015 guest blog post:

There is no amazing blockbuster story that explains why we want to help others, why we want to make the world a better place, why we want to eliminate suffering for our fellow human beings. It is natural. It makes us happy to see others happy. It is not magic. It is human nature that is sometimes lost and forgotten under the stress and struggles of daily life.

Head over to the Cardborigami homepage to learn more about how Hovsepian and her L.A.-borne emergency housing startup are helping to make the world a better place, one ingenious folding cardboard hut at a time.

And in addition to donating to a most worthy cause, you can also buy your very own (untreated/not water-resistant) Cardborigami shelter for $250. As Cardborigami explains, the shelters are ideal for camping or beach excursions or used as backyard forts. While buyers, naturally, must unfold and assemble the structures themselves, the shelters are constructed and packaged by homeless youth. Proceeds from sales of Cardborigami's recreation-minded cardboard shelters go directly to jobs programs for homeless teens in Los Angeles.