These Brilliant Disaster Shelters Were Inspired By Teepees And A Coffee Cup

Exo shelters stack on top of each other for transport and snap together in a few minutes to create fast, mini-cities after a disaster.

It all started with a coffee cup. After Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands of people–sending some as far away as Houston–designer Michael McDaniel started thinking about how to design a better disaster shelter. His solution, the Exo Housing System, was inspired by a morning cup of coffee.


“I was looking at a sleeve of coffee cups and thought, ‘There it is,'” says McDaniel. The floor of the shelter acts like the lid of a cup; the rest of the shelter can snap easily into place so the whole thing can be installed, by hand, in just a couple of minutes. The cup-shaped shelters can also stack on top of each other to save space for transportation.

The design of the shelter was also inspired by the traditional teepee. “Teepees have become a caricature in pop culture, but when you actually look at it through a serious design lens, it’s a brilliant structure. It’s adaptable to different environments, it’s highly affordable, and it had multiple uses–people slept in it, they had meetings in it, they cooked in it. It’s kind of this universal structure,” McDaniel says.

Each Exo can also be used in multiple ways. One version of the floor has integrated plumbing and water, so it can be used for a bathroom or kitchen. Another is intended as a space for sleeping. Multiple units can be connected together, so individual families have a small suite, or arranged so that a group of families can share communal spaces.

Unlike a teepee, the Exo can also be securely locked because of the rigid design. “After Hurricane Katrina there were some murders and quite a few rapes in the Superdome, and there’s volatility in current disaster response camps, especially in cases of civil unrest or civil war,” McDaniel says. “So it’s critical to have safety and security in the unit.”

The design is reusable, recyclable, and more more efficient to transport than standard relief shelters since it can be stacked. It will also cost just a fraction of the typical FEMA shelter or hotel voucher (during Katrina, some trailers cost over $200,000; the Exo may cost as little as $5,000).

After developing the design in his spare time for the last several years, McDaniel–who used to work as a designer at frog–shifted to work full-time on bringing the Exo to life. His new company, Reaction, is currently crowdfunding the first prototypes of the device on Indiegogo.


“Once we’re done evaluating the prototypes, we’ll be able to send them to Syria,” McDaniel says. “Indiegogo is allowing us to get units out there helping people now, but we can also get feedback on the ground before rolling out these things en masse. It’s essentially design research with a purpose.”

Full production will begin early next year, when the company plans to begin supplying the units to relief agencies and nonprofits in order to help some of the 30 million people who are displaced by disaster each year.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.