Deploying Better Shelters, For The Next Big Weather Disaster

After the initial shock wears off, victims of events like the Oklahoma tornado often don’t have a roof over their heads. These innovative shelters are some of the solutions available.

The monster tornado that hit the Oklahoma City suburbs this week did more than just take lives. It also left countless people without homes. The most commonly used shelter solutions are far from ideal. Tents are difficult to live in for long periods of time, and trailers are too bulky to be practical. There are other shelter solutions out there, though, and many of them are better-designed than what we have today.


One of the best long-term solutions we’ve seen comes from Visible Good, a startup that has created a lightweight, easy to assemble, folding, modular shelter that’s somewhere between a tent and a trailer. Visible Good co-founder John Rossi told us in a recent interview why he thinks the company’s Rapid Deployment Model (RDM) is useful in disaster situations: “The reality is, there really is a gap that this little structure fits into. It’s got the hard walls and insulation of a more conventional building, and it’s compact and packs into its own floor, so you don’t lose parts, things don’t go missing, it doesn’t fall apart, and you’ve got a very neat little package that’s easy to ship and easy to set up.”

At $15,500 a pop for the base unit (without volume discounts), the RDM isn’t a bargain solution. But it is ultimately more economical than traditional trailers, which don’t fold up as neatly, and easily redeployed.

If you’re looking for other fresh shelter designs, there are few better places to look than shelter exhibitions and competitions. Four engineering students from Calvin College won the 2013 World Vision Disaster Shelter Design Competition for their short-term shelter, a PVC structure that’s anchored to the ground by sandbags and stakes. The shelter can withstand 50 MPH winds, earthquakes, and other nasty environmental curveballs that are thrown at disaster sites.

At the recent Melbourne Emergency Shelter Exhibition, BVN Architects showed off a shelter made out of prefabricated plywood pieces that fit together like a 3-D puzzle. The eight to ten person temporary home is meant to be wrapped in either vinyl or plastic sheeting to protect from wind and rain. According to Inhabitat, the shelter, which can be assembled in three and a half hours, was designed to provide a sense of joy (as much as possible after a disaster) along with cover from the elements.

Also at the Melbourne exhibition, COX showed off an incredibly simple shelter design made out of cardboard formed into a three-sided enclosure tied together with wire, cable, or rope. A “wall piece” rolls over to intersect with the rest of the structure. This is an extreme emergency design that’s not nearly as comfortable-looking as some of the other shelters featured here. But there are severe disaster situations where it could be helpful.

The Haiti disaster has gone on long enough that volunteers have begun to experiment with long-term innovative shelter designs. Now disaster response organizations need to integrate these solutions elsewhere–including in the U.S., where weather-related disasters will only become more common.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.