Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A New Response to Natural Disasters

Although natural disasters are a common occurrence in the U.S. and abroad, disaster relief is something that seems to occupy our collective conscience for a relatively short period of time. At the first breaking news headlines we are shaken up, and maybe even prompted to donate to the cause. But within a few weeks, we quickly settle back into our respective universes. But not Michael McDaniel. For him, the issue of how our society responds to disasters has become a personal obsession.

It began with his recognition of a problem: there is no practical sheltering system that can effectively respond to large-scale natural disasters. After a natural disaster strikes in the United States, it is estimated that it will take at least 18 months for permanent resettlement to begin for those affected. In the case of large-scale disasters, that means shelter must quickly be found for thousands of people. This typically involves housing the displaced in sports arenas, gymnasiums, and auditoriums until a transitional shelter can be arranged. When it does come, that transitional housing typically takes the form of hotels or FEMA trailers. Each of these options, however, poses serious drawbacks. FEMA trailers won’t arrive on the scene for at least 45-90 days after the disaster. And when people are given vouchers for hotel stays or RVs, the government pays quite a sizable sum: averaging $65,000 per family.

In light of this dilemma, Michael McDaniel began designing his revolutionary Reaction housing system—just three days after Hurricane Katrina hit. As the researcher Weisberg noted, “all problem solving is based on knowledge.” So McDaniel drew on his expertise as a designer. And where he wasn't confident, McDaniel drew on the experience of others, surrounding himself with a team of experts who could help solve the issue. As their website boasts, “The Reaction team is comprised of some of the world's absolute best designers, technologists, and business minds. The team is backed up by a board of directors and advisory board that bring industry leading experience in product design, manufacturing, supply chain, and business together.” It is clear that they draw on a model of collaboration that has been heralded by many researchers as a wellspring of creativity.  

In a process that is reminiscent of what many researchers refer to as divergent thinking, McDaniel (first alone, and later with his team) began brainstorming possible solutions to the problem of housing in the midst of a natural disaster. And his breakthrough came with the simple process of analogical transfer. In a moment of insight, he realized that a coffee cup provided the perfect model for temporary housing: it would be insulated, stackable, and safe.

Starting from that point, McDaniel and his team developed a two-part housing system that is secure, easy to transport and assemble, and cost-effective. By turning the coffee cup upside down, McDaniel made a housing unit: what was once the lid became a floor and the cup itself became a roof and walls. And just like coffee cups, McDaniel’s housing units are stackable. This is essential, because it means that a far greater volume of shelter can be put in a much smaller space, allowing for efficient transportation and shipping. The components of the housing unit are lightweight and uncomplicated, so when they arrive on site they can be assembled by just four adults. The two main pieces “snap together,” and set-up is done. There are no tools involved. This means that the units can be transported and set up faster than any other housing option available today. In addition, the units are designed to be environmentally friendly, reusable, and cost-effective. They are one fourth the price of FEMA trailers, one third the price of shipping containers, at just $5,000 per unit. And when they are no longer needed, the units can be cleaned out and shipped to their next assignment!

Beyond just efficiency, McDaniel’s housing units also address another major need in the midst of natural disasters: community. The units can be arranged in a “city grid formation” (rows) or “pods,” which can provide somewhat private, communal areas for families or neighbors to congregate. With slight modifications, several units can even be connected to one another, providing a way for large families to stay in the same home. Modified units can even be used for bathrooms or kitchens. And the units are climate controlled, with electrical power capabilities that power lighting and wall outlets.

McDaniel's innovations expertly demonstrate that creative problem solving can have real-world implications. Creativity isn't just a process that can lead to aesthetically appealing pieces of art or new business strategies. Rather, creativity is something that can be mobilized to respond to real-life crises and impact thousands for the better. McDaniel says that his mission is “to revolutionize the way the world responds to disasters” and he is quickly making that bold ideal a reality.

For more information about the Reaction housing system or to donate to the project, visit their website.


  1. I find this idea quite ingenious. It helps to solve a rapid response problem with a quick, efficient, and totally cost-effective solution. It is definitely creative because it is both a novel idea and a practical one that outstrips everything that has come before it. After watching a video on their website, I realized that one freight train could bring enough Exos to house my entire hometown (around 8,000) if a disaster struck; I find that amazing, especially given the current emergency housing options available. I do wonder about one thing, though, have they been utilized yet in any major capacity? It appears the field hasn't fully accepted or at least hasn't bought into their design as of yet, but I think this concept can only grow from here.

  2. This is a really incredible idea. I think the best part is that this idea can have an enormously positive impact on people who need it the most. It is very ingenious, yet extremely logical and obvious, to design cost efficient, environmentally sustainable and easily transportable housing, but no one has been able to do this before. People struck by natural disaster need help fast, and his product really is the best option. Ultimately, I find the essence of community is the most creative part of McDaniel's product. I think that is what victims need most at such a devastating time, but it can easily be overlooked. The fact that these houses can be arranged like a real neighborhood creates a source of normalcy and community that anyone in that situation would truly value.

  3. I agree that this concept is truly innovative. I think part of its creativity comes from the fact that he was simply motivated by a desire to help and used his own unique skills to come up with a solution to a problem ans sought out help from others when it came to logistics that he was not familiar with. The potential positive implications that can come from his design are great and can only be improved upon.

  4. This idea is incredible. I'm from Kansas, the heart of "Tornado Alley," so the threat of a natural disaster is very real to me. I have seen whole neighborhoods destroyed in a matter of seconds, and the devastation can take a year or more to clean up. This creation not only offers housing options for people ripped from their homes, but also has the possibility of restoring normalcy in communities much faster than brick and mortar buildings could. I don't think it would be too far of a stretch to combine multiple units into make-shift schools, grocery stores, or medical facilities. The possibilities are endless. McDaniel's creativity is going to have an outstanding effect on people during some of the most challenging times imaginable. I hope I never have to use one, but it is definitely reassuring to know that these portable shelters exist!


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