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.