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Reaction system promises versatile, cost effective emergency housing


June 10, 2012

The Reaction Housing System deployed in a stadium parking lot (Photo: Reaction Housing Systems)

The Reaction Housing System deployed in a stadium parking lot (Photo: Reaction Housing Systems)

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In a world where millions of people are forced from their houses every year because of natural disasters, there is an ongoing need for huge numbers of decent mid- to long-term temporary housing units that can be swiftly delivered to the affected area. The Reaction Housing System has been developed to make the wait as short as possible.

Six months after Hurricane Katrina, just over 15 percent of the 92,000 temporary housing units required (the infamous Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers) had been supplied to displaced Louisiana citizens. Even the largest economy in the world required more than a year to complete the task of providing temporary housing following this disaster.

The situation is worse in less-developed countries. Two years after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, there are still more than half a million people living in camps under makeshift tents and tarpaulins.

The need for emergency housing is relatively constant from year to year, so much of the demand could be addressed by reusable units that can be compactly stored in warehouses strategically disposed around a country, a continent, or the entire world.

The Reaction Housing System has been developed with this reality in mind. A single cargo ship can deliver as many as 300,000 "Exo" base housing units capable of providing shelter to over a million refugees. The figure below shows delivery and installation of a semi-truck load of Exo housing units. A semi-truck can transport about 20 Exo units.

The Exo is delivered in two components, a base plate and an upper shell. The units are designed so that the upper shells can be stacked like a set of styrofoam coffee cups, one atop the next. The base plate is placed in the desired position, then four workers can lift the Exo shell, position it on the base plate, and then connect the two using clasps.

The installation process requires about two minutes per housing unit. This means that a housing park comprising a thousand Exo housing units can be installed in an eight-hour work day by a crew of 20 workers. Such a housing park can house as many as 4000 people.

A plan view of more than a thousand Exo housing units deployed in 8-unit circular pods in the parking lot of a sports stadium (Image: Reaction Housing Systems)

Utility hookups consist of standardized connections to transportable sources of power, heating/air conditioning, water, and sewer services. These connections are designed for simple, fast completion.

The standard Exo housing unit can be specialized for many purposes, but the basic configuration is as a one-family unit equipped for four people. An Exo has a footprint of 85 square feet (7.9 square meters), and is 9 feet (2.7 meters) tall. The livable interior area is 76 square feet (7.2 square meters), and includes four bunk beds. The lower two beds can be used as benches for seating when the top bunks are stowed away.

Each Exo housing unit's base floor plate weighs 250 lb (114 kg) and the upper shell weighs 370 lb (168 kg). The upper shells are made from a polypropylene composite over an aluminum super structure. Three inches of closed cell foam provides the Exo with R-13 insulation. Bullet resistant upper shells are also available. The floor plate is made of heavy-duty steel tubing and wooden flooring to provide a solid and portable, foundation for the Exo.

In a standard deployment, each Exo housing unit is provided with multiple electrical wall sockets supplying AC power compatible with the local utilities, heating and air conditioning diffusers supplied from a central HVAC generator, and LED lighting. Amenities such as individual HVAC units and internet access can easily be added if environmental conditions allow and warrant their use. Such additional capabilities and more (tables, rear door, active exhaust fan, ceiling fans, etc.) can be readily added at any time after the initial deployment of the housing units.

Most disaster recovery scenarios have a habit of falling far behind the initial schedule for recovery, so for more extended housing applications, several Exo units can be attached as in the figure above to give a family a living room, a bedroom, and a bathroom. Other possibilities for additional rooms include an office, a kitchen/dining room, storage facilities, and many more. The Reaction Housing System was designed with the flexibility to remain a relevant part of the housing solution even if occupation lasts years instead of months.

Any large-scale approach for temporary housing following a disaster must be economically viable as well as solid engineering solutions to the living challenges. As a reference point, although firm figures for the cost of installed FEMA trailers during the Katrina resettlement are difficult to pin down, the U.S. General Services Administration estimates an average price per unit in excess of US$30,000 per trailer, with some estimates as large as US$70-80K.

The target cost of an Exo housing unit is US$5000, and it is designed so that shipping and installation costs will be very small. When a particular housing need is over, the Exo housing units can be hosed out and returned to storage for reuse in future resettlement. In contrast the FEMA trailers are decertified for human occupation following one use.

The combination of all these factors tells us that the Reaction Housing System could fill an expensive gap in our current approach to dealing with natural disasters.

Source: Reaction Housing Systems

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer. All articles by Brian Dodson

Is there any insulation? Also I don't think that 4 guys moving 380 lbs around will last 8 hrs.

The Hoff

They claim R13 insulation. Also, I am guessing that rather than lifting 380lbs for 8 hours, this is more of a thing that gets lifted once, popped into place and then connected. A healthy group of four people should be able to do that all day long.

Alan Belardinelli

@ The Hoff, I agree, as someone who regularly carries that type of weight that type of distance for a living, my limit is about 20 trips per half hour, Im not a fit guy, but Ive been doing it for 10 years now, and new guys who are gym buffs last about 5 trips before looking like they are going to die. Considering the requirement would be for 200 trips carrying 42kg, one would have to make 40 trips per hour, or one trip every minute and a half, without breaks, and also laying the only slightly lighter base as well.

Just not going to happen. Not without a forklift or 5

Tony Smale

Dunno, I say it looks feasable with a limited amount of people power. Once a team gets good, setting the plates down should be a breeze (of course having a pal-finger or whatever they are called outside of scandahoovia would be ideal for that) then rolling the truck by, taking them down exactly where they need to be and then easing them into place should be pretty straight forward. Correct staging, planning, and execution and these guys go up like a charm, I bet. Incorrect and...its a SNAFU.

Alan Belardinelli

i dont understand how shipping could be cheap if each unit weights a hefty 282kg in total.... also dont understand why they need to be so heavy unless your setting them up in the middle of the dangerzone

its very cool that they can be connected to form multiple rooms but surely temporery housing should be temporery, you just need a place to sleep not a living room to watch the tv

Dean Jones

with a custom hand cart, a single person should be able to set this in place

tampa florida

I think part of the weight is for the inner and outer shells, insulation, wiring and doors. That weight is needed for weather protection, too, to prevent theft, and most importantly, protection for movement due to high winds (Caribbean hurricanes).

Matt Rings

The idea that you could just reuse the same units every year for each new disaster area seems pretty iffy.

For one thing, the units will almost certainly be needed for longer than a year in a given location.

Once they've been disaster area housing for a year or two, I'm not sure you'd want them back.

It might be better to simply make them out of materials that could easily be repurposed.

Jon A.

Steel shipping containers.

Port au Prince had a huge amount of those containers because Haiti produces quite literally nothing anyone else wants and unless it's a very short trip it costs more than an empty container to send it back from there.

There are other places with similarly poor living conditions, poor economy and an excess of shipping containers.

Since most of those areas are also generally warm year 'round, insulation would not be required, but ventilation would. The containers have holes at the corners which are used to hold stacking pins. Those holes could be used to mount sun shades.

For the quickest temporary housing conversion, design an insert for the door end equipped with ventilation fans and a duct to direct air the full length of the container.

Beyond that, additions can (and have) been made up to welding many containers into stacks to build houses, apartment buildings and student dormitories.

These containers are a relatively cheap and very abundant resource, especially in many areas that need good housing.

Yet many of the people that need such housing turn their noses up at the very thought, just like the Haitians did at the US offer to give the country the surplus "FEMA trailers". They wouldn't even take the ones that were never used.

Gregg Eshelman

I like the concept, but I'm with Gregg Eshelman about the shipping containers instead of the above idea (which we all should realize is designed to hold armed troops and their support, not refugees).

I have plans to build my own permanent house from them once I buy the parcel of land it will be built on. I won't stack them, but three or four will be connected in a U shape, a square, or a t-formation. The tallest size of them (HQ) gives 8' – 10 7/32” feet of interior head room. The space between them can be framed out in other materials, such as hemp-crete or natural cord wood from the property set in concrete. When it is finished, it won't even look like it was made from shipping containers. It will look like any other house in the area.

Gene Jordan

It looks like they planned the design really well. It is quite clever to have them shaped in such a way as to fit them inside each other. No folding hinges means it will be stronger and last longer as well. My only concern is with the price. At $5000 each this is about the price of a used Ford Escort in the US. If they could bring the price down to $1000 at the very least it could be a winner, especially in Africa where even permanent residence is a problem and where donations could supply a huge number of people with homes that are at least better than tin shacks.

Peter Lloyd

I've worked with the homeless in trying to find refrigerator boxes for them. The amount of energy that goes into building one 'Habitat for Humanity" would house a thousand homeless. I can tell you (or at least I'm going to) that they need more than 'shelter'; they need 'security', too. These things need to be strong enough to provide protection for the inhabitants. Installation: I would just dump them off the truck and provide walk-around supervisors to instruct, supervise, and authorize. "Their" house, "Their" neighborhood, "Their" responsibility and authority.


I'm not sure I understand what the designers are thinking here... Electrical outlets, wifi, HVAC units??? It's disaster relief, chances are there is no electrical grid and I don't believe whoever is setting this up all of a sudden will have thousands of generators to power peoples air conditioners and wifi... People need shelter from the elements, water, food, medicial attention, and a place to put their human waste. Not wifi and air conditioning. A great idea but I'm not sure why a box would cost 50,000 dollars. Install the soda bottle with water/chlorine inside as the light source or just a skylight, put a small solar panel on top and 4 drop down cots inside. This is a cool idea but the cost makes no sense in my opinion. I could think of a dozen different ways to make these cheaper and way more useful.



I think the idea is to cover as many potential situations as possible. For instance if you can sell one unit that can cover five different scenarios it will be a lot easier to get them funded thus to be able to drop the price.

And to everyone that thinks that shipping containers are a great way house refugees. I have personally spent many many hours in a semi converted shipping container in both Afghanistan and Iraq (during both summer and winter months) NOT comfortable. Without proper ventilation and air conditioning it gets pretty miserable and I am lucky that it was in an arid environment.

Also keep in mind that there is a need for multipurpose stack-able and durable housing units not just for disaster relief. In case of CDC, National Guard, Active Duty, FEMA deployment there always going to be a need to quickly and easily house government workers. Using this design you could very easily build deployment housing in as little as a month and scale on the fly...and at 5000.00 USD per I'm pretty sure its not much more expensive than the hard shelter units we had in Iraq and only slightly smaller.

The idea needs to be refined a little bit but it does show a lot of promise.

Daniel Trimble

Try having a look at the "ShelterBox" system from Rotary, it costs about $1200 and provides shelter for approx 10 people along with cooking gear and tools to survive, so far in the last 5 years over 50,000 units have been delivered to needy people after disasters, from Katrina, Vic bushfires in Australia, and Burma, turky earthquakes ,,, and the list goes on.

While this idea for a reusable one is a fine idea, I don't see how you will get trucks rolling through a disaster area to find a nice site to lay them all out and set up a city, lets face it the area has just had a disaster and the last thing available will be a nice clean area to setup.

Richard Unwin

Tents are the best, most cost effective option.


@Richard, any shopping mall or stadium will have all the ground space you could need. They park cars there.

Use both systems together. Ship the above housing units in containers, deploy them with flat Dollies if power equipment is not available.

Make them with built in solar panels, and DC lighting built in, with batteries in the base unit.

Use the containers for lockable storage for anything in the way of food, water, tools, equiptment, paper work, radios, generators (running as a power station or as a locker.

Mount full coverage solar panels on the roof and sides of the containers to add to the power station grid.

add DC powered screw type leg lifters to the hard corners of the containers. This would allow them to be loaded and unloaded by just sliding a flat bed truck out from under it and letting it down. They could also be used to level it. One compact, emergency shelter package.

they also make break-down, genie lifts, which are one man forklifts activated by a hand crank winch. That would lift anything in this weight range, and they are on wheels, so roll them to where they are needed to help assemble.


It also occurs to me, that there is no reason to have to lift the entire 380 pounds at all. As it is being unloaded, roughly half of the weight is on the truck, or container. When on the ground, only one side at a time needs to be raised or moved at a time, and again, half the weight is on the ground, once on a dolly, all you need do is steer, steady, and pull/push.

I'd slide them out of the truck or container, roll them onto flatcar dollies, and roll them into position, with very little heavy lifting.


I'm responding to the comment that says tents are the best, most cost effective solution: The current real world response to disasters is inadequate and tents are issued in mass by many organizations. The problem is they are part of a repetitive delivery cycle that costs billions of dollars every year. The first logistics cycle delivers tarps, then tents (usually several tents are needed over the years), then transitional shelters, then permanent structures. Shelter like this or one by another company, IADDIC Shelters http://iaddicshelters.com are more appropriate when delivered at the onset of the disaster.

One point often overlooked is the developing world takes much longer to reconstruct after a disaster. The Haiti earthquake was almost 3 years ago and roughly 40% of the disaster victims are still in tents and will be there for years to come.

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