Brad Sinkaus

It is often said that the greatest achievements begin with one simple idea. This is certainly true in the case of the Exo, a groundbreaking temporary housing unit for people displaced by natural disasters. Called “the future of disaster relief structures,” the Exo’s innovative design—which was conceived just days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall—was inspired by something most of us use every day: the take-away coffee cup.

Michael McDaniel, founder and CEO of Reaction Housing, developed the Exo housing unit after noticing the advantages that the structure of his cup could hold for temporary housing. In particular, he noticed that an upside-down coffee cup is essentially a 2-part design that snaps together. McDaniel realized that if he could create a design that similarly snapped the floor onto the roof and walls, it would not only result in an insulated, rigid structure, but that, like coffee cups, the separate pieces could sleeve together, drastically increasing the amount of shelter that could be transported in a very small volume.

Transporting relief supplies, including temporary housing units, for those affected by natural disasters can be especially challenging, particularly in areas where roads are heavily damaged or flooded, as in the case of Katrina. In fact, it takes Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers an average 45-60 days or more to reach affected areas. But unlike FEMA trailers—which can cost up to $65,000 each, need a vehicle to move them, and can only be transported two at a time—the Exo costs $5,000, is light enough at 400 lbs. each to be easily lifted or moved by people, and can be shipped 20 at a time. And with integrated wiring for electricity and climate control, the quick-set-up Exo can easily be reused throughout the affected region and in future disasters.

Exo Transit Packing

Source: Reaction Housing Indiegogo Site

The advantages of the Exo’s design enable relief organizations to maximize their impact in a more efficient and effective way. Although the U.S. government has passed on McDaniel’s design, he has turned to other means, such as crowdfunding, to get his idea to those who need it. In doing so, he has already surpassed its $50,000 goal—money that will be used to send prototypes of the Exo to evacuees around the world, giving the people of Syria, Haiti, and other places shelter as they work to recover from disaster.

And to think, all of this came from a disposable coffee cup. It makes you wonder—in what other ways can we leverage everyday materials to increase not only disaster responsiveness, but also potentially resilience in the long run?