Coffee Cups Inspire Breakthrough in Emergency Shelters

Andrew Lampard
This Could Be Big
Coffee Cups Inspire Breakthrough in Emergency Shelters

In reporting for this video blog the past year, I’ve learned that some of our most innovative ideas are hiding in plain sight.

Case-in-point: The Exo Housing Unit, a rapid-response solution to supplying shelter to disaster victims. These lightweight, yet durable units made by Reaction are practical to deploy because they stack on top of each other like disposable coffee cups -- the very object that inspired the Exo's creation.

“One morning I was drinking coffee,” said Michael McDaniel, CEO of Reaction, and the Exo’s creator, “and, literally, I pulled a coffee cup out of a big sleeve of cups to make coffee... and that’s when it dawned on me: coffee cups.”

That moment of clarity came to McDaniel in 2005. At the time, he was tinkering with ways to make disaster shelters both structurally sound and easily deployable on a mass scale. An Exo unit has sloped walls that are stackable like coffee cups; in turn, organizations can max-out cargo space with dozens of units when deploying them to relief zones.

Each year, 32.5 million people are displaced around the world from natural disasters alone, said McDaniel. And when you factor in the millions more displaced by wars, the problem of providing adequate and rapid shelter for those displaced becomes gargantuan.

In the Zaatari refugee camp for displaced Syrians in Jordan, refugees sleep in tents that are hot during the day and cold at night. Mice and insects are rampant. In Haiti, 131,553 people are still sleeping in ragged tent cities because of the earthquake that struck four years ago, according to the International Organization for Migration. As imperfect as those shelters are, they still top the toxic trailers FEMA used to house more than 100,000 people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

“Most people, in the past, try to modify or adapt existing structures,” McDaniel said. “So they go in and adapt a shipping container and cut windows, [which] compromise the structure.”

Those modified containers require 10,000 pound forklifts to lift them into position. A single Exo, by contrast, can be lifted by four people and assembled in two minutes.

McDaniel’s hasn’t finalized the price for the housing units, but said they will cost between $5,000 and $10,000 apiece. He has even received commercial inquiries from people who want to use Exos as hunting cabins and backyard yurts. Commercial Exo units will certainly be priced higher than those used as disaster shelters, with the former’s sales helping keep prices low for the latter’s deployment.

In the meantime, McDaniel and his team at Reaction are racing to get as many units as possible on the ground by the end of the year. Watch the video above to see precisely why the Exo may be the most innovative thing since, well, a disposable coffee cup.