Mass. company has out-of-the-box approach to emergency shelters

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June 7, 2013, 8:09 pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe, Newburyport, Mass.) - Tornadoes in Oklahoma, flooding in Europe, Superstorm Sandy - the examples never stop coming of people in this country and around the world being left homeless by natural disasters.

And aside from shelter in schools or churches or military buildings or with neighbors whose homes do survive, typically the options today range from – in the U.S. – mobile homes rolled in by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to, in developing nations, tents and tarpaulin villages.

In Haiti, three years after its devastating earthquake, there are still thousands of people living every day out of tents.

In Newburyport, a company called Visible Good has perfected an in-between alternative, and just sent four down to Oklahoma to provide shelter after last month’s tornadoes.

It’s called the Rapid Deployment Module, and it’s a rugged, reasonably weather-insulated shelter the size of a small cabin, about 130 square feet with nine-foot-high ceilings. The breakthrough is that it comes, in its entirety, packed as a 4 foot by 4 foot by 7 foot box that weighs about 1,400 pounds.

Typically it’s a matter of well under an hour, and a 20-step process explained in a pictorial illustration, for people to connect the roughly 50 pieces into a shelter building. The list price is around $15,000, although Visible Good plans significant volume discounts for organizations or government agencies ordering them by the dozens or hundreds.

John Rossi, an architect who founded the company with two partners, said what he’s especially proud of is that the boxes are so compact that you can fit 20 into a standard 40-foot shipping container, or 26 into a standard 53-foot trailer, enough to build a small village or house a neighborhood.

Rossi just returned from a visit to Oklahoma, where Visible Good deployed four of the units, two to provide a temporary functional replacement for a family that operated an at-home day-care center for eight children.

"Not only did they lose their home, they lost their business, and all the kids that were part of the daycare lost a huge chunk of their normal life," Rossi said. "We felt we were very fortunate to be able to provide one building for the day care for the eight children, and another for the people to live in while they were rebuilding their home."

"After seeing what had happened with the earthquake, you almost think you can't see anything worse," said Rossi, who visited Haiti. "Then seeing what Oklahoma looked like, the devastation ... Across the street, you have people mowing their lawns and trimming their roses, and on the other side of the street, there was absolutely nothing."

Rossi came up with the idea of the module nine years ago while working as an architect in Boston, then left it in a sketch book, only to be prompted to take it out and look at it again after the devastation of Haiti and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Before last month’s Oklahoma tornado, BP used 26 of the modules as movable put-up-take-down shelters and workspace for cleanup crews being dispatched to respond as oil patches emerged along the gulf coast.

Visible Good has since developed versions that have toilets and showers, even a six-toilet portable restroom, with snap-together tubing.

"Everything gets shipped in the box and it all goes together with no tools, including the plumbing," Rossi said. "It's a pre-packaged building that shows up ready to go up, it's easy to put together, and doesn't require tons of skills."

Rossi showed the 20-picture installation diagram.

"Chances are, intuitively, you can figure out how to put this together."

Elizabeth Gibbons, a visiting scientists at Harvard’s School of Public Health who served earlier as the top United Nations official in charge of relief efforts in Haiti and Guatemala and in senior positions at UN headquarters in New York, lives on the North Shore and has gotten to know Visible Good.

"I thought it was just remarkable, the potential that it has to really transform humanitarian assistance," Gibbons said. "It’s very durable, compared to tents as an alternative, and very versatile. They could be classrooms, they could be administration centers, health clinics."

Gibbons explained one of many features she finds important: The modules sit on adjustable footings so that they can be made to sit level on uneven surfaces – like the rubble left by Haiti’s earthquake. While the devices have zip-open windows to create a cross-breeze and a canvas covering called a "fly" intended to protect them from the sun, Gibbons said she’d look forward to seeing them in real-world deployments in super-hot areas of the Earth to test just how comfortable they can in fact remain.

The 1,400-pound weight, Gibbons says, - potentially too much for humans or even animals to be able to handle, especially in areas without clear roads – could be a real-world challenge to deployment in some cases. But she is impressed by the potential.

"From my experience, and I was 25 years in the UN, I think it’s really got a lot of promise," Gibbons said.

Recently, Visible Good got a $1 million U.S. Army/National Science Foundation grant to develop rugged, better insulated versions of the modules that would be designed to be taken anywhere from Antarctica to the hottest deserts of the world, and withstand up to 100 m.p.h. winds.

Visible Good is also looking at whether the units could make sense as reasonably affordable semi-permanent shelters or modular medical clinics or school or community buildings in less-developed nations – something more rugged and better weatherized than a hut or a yurt, but priced to be affordable especially with a microloan from a development organization. They are designed so that, for example, three could be connected to each other to create a fairly primitive but functional triage-surgery-recovery medical clinic.

For now, Rossi said, the main challenge has simply been to get enough exposure and traction for what is, quite literally, an out-of-the-box approach.

In seeking contracts from domestic and international disaster-relief organizations, Rossi said,

"You have some huge institutions that you're dealing with which can be very slow to move," said Rossi regarding potential contracts from domestic and international disaster-relief organizations. "And there are some very big established players that make trailers, for instance, or tents, that don't necessary want to see something showing up in between."

With videographer Nik Saragosa.

Tags: massachusetts, Peter Howe, Newburyport, emergency shelter, John Rossi, Elizabeth Gibbons
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