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.

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