In 2005, Michael McDaniel watched in helpless horror as Hurricane Katrina forced thousands of people out of their homes and into crowded, under-equipped disaster shelters. He knew there had to be a better solution. "Really, what got to me was the Astrodome," he says. "You had 20,000 people who had taken whatever they could carry out of New Orleans, put it in a garbage bag and stuck it under a cot in the middle of an indoor baseball field. I started to think, Really? Is this the best we can come up with?"
An accomplished graphic designer by day, McDaniel began to spend his nights and weekends working to design a portable, reusable disaster-relief shelter. After years of fine-tuning, his work has resulted in the Exo Reaction Housing System.
Tell me about the Exo.
When I started working on this, I was tinkering around with the idea of what a modern American tepee would be. I came up with something that sleeps four people, is strong and secure, and can fit on the back of a semi-truck without a wide-load designation. The units are eight-and-a-half feet deep, 10 feet wide and about eight-and-a-half feet tall. There's about 80 square feet of living space on the inside.
If you think about a coffee cup and turn it upside down, that's where the current Exo design came from. The walls are all kicked in at six-degree draft angles so you can stack them like coffee cups. We can fit anywhere from 15 to 20 stacked Exos on a semi-truck trailer, which is enough housing for 60 to 80 people. When you take those same dimensions and extrapolate that across different modes of transit, you can start moving a lot of housing very quickly. Even a medium-sized cargo ship would hold enough Exos to house about a million people per shipment. It's extremely efficient for transportation.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered in designing a portable housing system?
I nailed down the core concept on nights and weekends in about a month and a half or so. From there, it's been a lot of tweaking and refinements. One of the big design parameters I first gave myself when I was on my tepee kick was that the units needed to be light enough that you could move them around by hand without having machinery. I wanted the target weight to be 400 pounds or less so you could have a team of National Guard volunteers able to unload them by hand. It's a contradictory thing, though: You want something large enough that four people can sleep in it and that has a sense of privacy and security and durability, but at the same time you want it to be portable. Things you'd think would work just don't. Like fiberglass. Just one side [of a fiberglass Exo] was over 800 pounds.
How did you wind up resolving the weight issue?
The secret sauce is really in the shell design—that outer, silvery skin you see. It's actually a composite material called polypropylene, made from the same material as a soda bottle. Its brand name is Tegris, and it's made by Milliken in South Carolina. For us, it solved a lot of technical problems because it's extremely lightweight and extremely durable. It can also be ground up and recycled, which was important to me.
What are the units like inside?
There are two slots on each side of the walls. On the standard configuration, we have bunk beds that can fold up there and latch into place so you can stack the units. When you deploy them, you can fold the beds down and have four bunk beds or just fold down the bottom two and use them as seating, like couches.
Disaster-relief sites are notoriously chaotic. How did you address the issue of safety?
In thinking about a disaster context, security was one of the first big things I looked at. The items you fled your home with might not have a lot of monetary value, but they're going to have a lot of sentimental value to you. You want to have a secure place to protect those things. Instead of doing soft walls like a tent or some other flexible pop-up structure, we decided to do rigid walls, which gave us security. It also has locking doors that are keyed, and there's a deadbolt you can engage from inside. The result is a personal, secure, protected place in what could be a very chaotic and potentially unsafe environment.
You designed these with disaster situations in mind, but have you come up with other uses for the Exo?
It could be used for any type of housing situation, really—it doesn't necessarily have to be disaster-based. If you start thinking about North and South Dakota right now, you have people making six-figure salaries but sleeping in their cars because there was no town there before the fracking crews arrived. There's a huge housing need in places like that.
Then there are the fun applications, like for concerts or events. Here in town, the Austin City Limits Music Festival could offer a three-day pass with lodging, where you could actually stay at the festival [in an Exo] and never have to leave. We've had a lot of people contact us about applications like that, which was something I never even thought of. It's very far removed and much more light-hearted than what it was originally intended for.
We've also heard from people who want to use them for everything from personal sheds to camping sites, and from corporations looking at them for mini-factories in emerging markets. Just when I think I've exhausted everything it could possibly be used for, someone will come up with something new.
I heard you've also had interest from the United Nations.
We talked to the United Nations Humanitarian Response Depot last summer. They were interested in actually housing U.N. personnel in [the Exos], so we started making it more modular so you can slot out the bunk beds and slot in desks or shelving instead. Each unit has two doorway openings on it, and a connector module would let you connect multiple units together. That would allow us to have office space up front for U.N. personnel, living quarters behind that, and then behind that, secure storage for medical supplies and whatnot.
When will we start seeing these out in the world?
I wish it was a year ago. Hopefully, by this fall or winter we can have them in full production.