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If you've seen a house being built, you've probably noticed that white plastic-like wrap covering the building's frame. It's a kind of insulation. Well, an enterprising art student in Detroit is putting the material to use without the house, and she just might save lives in the process.

Noah Ovshinsky of member station WDET reports.

NOAH OVSHINSKY: It seems simple enough, design a product that keeps the wind out and heat in. How about an inexpensive jacket that quickly transitions into a warm sleeping bag? A casual review of this holiday's catalogs reveals no such product.

Enter Veronika Scott, a student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Instead of designing cars or consumer appliances, as is more typical at her school, the 21-year-old junior has come up with a product that will be made by and for Detroit's homeless. It began as a class assignment. Scott says she looked for something people living on the street desperately needed.

Ms. VERONIKA SCOTT: Talking with them and just listening to them and watching them, it took months of - to finally realize what their need was. And that was heat and pride.

OVSHINKSY: Now, this is usually where the project ends; a need is identified, a product is designed and a grade issued. But Veronika Scott didn't stop here. She spent around $2,000 of her own money to construct several prototypes of her coat.

Ms. SCOTT: I can design a lot of things. And I have designed high-end electronics, and I may go back to that. But right now, in this economy, there's a lot of different needs that aren't going to be solved by a new cell phone.

OVSHINSKY: As Scott puts on one of the coats, it's clear that fashion takes a backseat to function. But then again, it doesn't have to look pretty. It just has to work. And work it does. Within a few seconds of putting on the coat indoors, Scott starts to sweat.

Ms. SCOTT: So I'm now putting the coat on. And this coat is made for someone at least a foot and a half taller than me so it hangs a little baggy.

OVSHINKSY: The coat is made from materials designed for other purposes, in this case, wool army blankets and paper-thin home insulation, a brand called Tyvek. By using these low-cost materials, Scott hopes to offer the coat for free. To get to the production phase, she's relying on an apparel company whose products are a fixture of daily life for many Americans.

Mr. MARK VALADE (CEO, Carhartt): She's probably spent hundreds of hours putting this product together for the end-user. It's pretty incredible for a 21-year-old.

OVSHINSKY: Mark Valade is the CEO of Carhartt, one of the nation's oldest and best-known makers of heavy-duty work clothes. After a meeting with Veronika Scott, Valade donated industrial sewing machines and materials for her project.

Mr. VALADE: As we walked her downstairs and showed her some insulations, some outerwear shelves types of things, and she goes, yeah, I kind of like that, but you know, this wouldn't work. And she knew exactly what she wanted.

OVSHINSKY: With Carhartt's help, Veronika Scott hopes to have an assembly line up and running in a few months. She's hoping the coats will provide both warmth and a paycheck to those who will ultimately wear them.

For NPR News, I'm Noah Ovshinsky in Detroit.

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