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A rapid deployment shelter can do 'Visible Good': Architect

By Cindy Atoji Keene

With more than 30 million people displaced from their homes by natural disasters last year, architect John Rossi is on a mission to develop a new emergency shelter design that could prove useful during a humanitarian crisis. Co-founder of Visible Good, based in Newburyport, Rossi has devised a lightweight, folding modular shelter called a “Rapid Deployment Module” (RDM) that is a hybrid between a trailer and a tent and can be used in emergency situations by first responders, aid agencies, and even educators and the military.

Q: Are there any real-world examples of this module in use?
A: The RDM shelter was used by British Petroleum (BP) environmental cleanup crews in the ongoing cleanup operation of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We sent several to Oklahoma this summer to provide temporary housing for families who lost their home after the tornadoes. In addition, after prototype models survived harsh environments, included hurricane conditions and a near miss by several tornadoes, the U.S. Army awarded us with a grant to research and develop an “extreme” module that can withstand bitter Antarctica cold or scorching desert heat and endure 100 mile winds. ]
Q: There are many emergency shelter technologies – what makes yours different?
A: The name “Rapid Deployment Module” says it all. Some emergency shelters can take quite a while to put up – even days. Ours can be assembled in under 30 minutes with no tools. The parts themselves are universal, like a Lego, and the buildings fit together to make bigger buildings or more versatile spaces. The semi-permanent shelter arrives in its own crate, which is actually the floor. Because of this integrated floor structure, it sits slightly off the ground, which is a good benefit in wet or rubble-strewn areas.

Q: You’ve been working on prototypes of the shelters for years. What inspired you to begin your first sketch?
A: I was doing a ton of work in the module world, those prefabricated houses that show up in a few pieces and go together in a day. I wondered what it would be like to have a tiny building in a flat-pack that could expand to the biggest building you can get. Nine years ago, I did a handful of sketches then put them away, took them out again three years ago after the devastation in Haiti and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The initial concept was inspired by the plastic shopping cart “parking lots” that you see in supermarkets.

Q: Millions of people are displaced from their homes by natural disasters, including recently, hundreds of Chinese who were victims of an earthquake. What happened to most of these people?
A: According to a United Nations release, what often happens is many people actually never end up going back to where they are from. Relocation becomes semi-permanent, if not permanent. In Haiti, for example, there are still hundreds of thousands living in tent camps. This can be a problem because the camps become very permanent places but the infrastructure is very temporary, often with no sanitation, lights or water, and lots of safety and security issues.

Q: There are loads of case studies on failed sheltering projects because the team didn't consider the cultural context of the application.
A: That’s a very thorny issue. It’s very hard to manufacture something at a reasonable cost that’s customizable across cultures. I won't say I cracked the code on that one. But in Haiti, I noticed that people started putting graffiti on trailers; they turned a blank canvas and turned it into something that is their own. I think it’s their way of taking possession of these foreign big white boxes and making them a reflection of their culture. I would completely welcome that on any of our installations.

Q: You have a demonstration RDM set up in Newburyport. How do you use it?
A: I’m sitting in here right now, talking on the phone. The vent screens are open, and there’s a little folding table and desk chair. You don’t need a lamp because the roof is translucent and there’s plenty of natural daylight. It’s a very standard module, set up per the 20-picture installation diagram. We spend time working in it, and one engineer’s son, Liam, does his homework here and has even slept in it. He’s 13 years old, and we like to say the shelter has passed the “Liam test.”

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