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TEDxAustin

Michael McDaniel: Cheap, effective shelter for disaster relief

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Michael McDaniel designed housing for disaster relief zones -- inexpensive, easy to transport, even beautiful – but found that no one was willing to build it. Persistent and obsessed, he decided to go it alone. At TEDxAustin, McDaniel show us his Exo Reaction Housing Solution, and asks us to prepare for the next natural disaster.

- Graphic designer
Michael McDaniel is a graphic designer using his skills to help people in meaningful ways. Full bio

So, I'm going to start off with kind of the buzzkill a little bit.
00:13
Forty-two million people
00:17
were displaced by natural disasters in 2010.
00:19
Now, there was nothing particularly special about 2010,
00:22
because, on average, 31 and a half million people
00:25
are displaced by natural disasters every single year.
00:29
Now, usually when people hear statistics or stats like that,
00:32
you start thinking about places like Haiti or other kind of
00:34
exotic or maybe even impoverished areas, but it happens
00:37
right here in the United States every single year.
00:40
Last year alone, 99 federally declared disasters
00:44
were on file with FEMA,
00:47
from Joplin, Missouri, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama,
00:49
to the Central Texas wildfires that just happened recently.
00:52
Now, how does the most powerful country in the world
00:56
handle these displaced people?
00:59
They cram them onto cots, put all your personal belongings
01:01
in a plastic garbage bag, stick it underneath,
01:03
and put you on the floor of an entire sports arena,
01:05
or a gymnasium.
01:08
So obviously there's a massive housing gap,
01:12
and this really upset me, because academia tells you
01:15
after a major disaster, there's typically about
01:18
an 18-month time frame to -- we kinda recover,
01:20
start the recovery process,
01:23
but what most people don't realize is that on average
01:25
it takes 45 to 60 days or more
01:27
for the infamous FEMA trailers to even begin to show up.
01:30
Before that time, people are left to their own devices.
01:33
So I became obsessed with trying to figure out a way
01:37
to actually fill this gap.
01:40
This actually became my creative obsession.
01:42
I put aside all my freelance work after hours and started
01:45
just focusing particularly on this problem.
01:48
So I started sketching.
01:53
Two days after Katrina, I started sketching and sketching
01:55
and trying to brainstorm up ideas or solutions for this,
01:57
and as things started to congeal or ideas started to form,
01:59
I started sketching digitally on the computer,
02:02
but it was an obsession, so I couldn't just stop there.
02:04
I started experimenting, making models,
02:07
talking to experts in the field, taking their feedback,
02:10
and refining, and I kept on refining and refining
02:12
for nights and weekends for over five years.
02:15
Now, my obsession ended up driving me to create
02:18
full-size prototypes in my own backyard — (Laughter) —
02:22
and actually spending my own personal savings on
02:24
everything from tooling to patents
02:26
and a variety of other costs,
02:29
but in the end I ended up with this modular housing system
02:31
that can react to any situation or disaster.
02:34
It can be put up in any environment,
02:37
from an asphalt parking lot to pastures or fields,
02:40
because it doesn't require any special setup
02:44
or specialty tools.
02:46
Now, at the foundation and kind of the core
02:48
of this whole system is the Exo Housing Unit,
02:50
which is just the individual shelter module.
02:53
And though it's light, light enough that you can actually
02:55
lift it by hand and move it around,
02:57
and it actually sleeps four people.
02:59
And you can arrange these things as kind of more
03:03
for encampments and more of a city grid type layout,
03:05
or you can circle the wagons, essentially,
03:08
and form these circular pods out of them,
03:10
which give you this semi-private communal area
03:12
for people to actually spill out into so they're not actually
03:15
trapped inside these units.
03:17
Now this fundamentally changes
03:19
the way we respond to disasters,
03:22
because gone are the horrid conditions
03:24
inside a sports arena or a gymnasium, where people
03:26
are crammed on these cots inside.
03:29
Now we have instant neighborhoods outside.
03:31
So the Exo is designed to be simply, basically
03:36
like a coffee cup. They can actually stack together
03:39
so we get extremely efficient transportation
03:42
and storage out of them.
03:44
In fact, 15 Exos can fit on a single semi truck by itself.
03:47
This means the Exo can actually be transported and set up
03:51
faster than any other housing option available today.
03:54
But I'm obsessive, so I couldn't just stop there,
03:59
so I actually started modifying the bunks where you could
04:01
actually slide out the bunks and slide in desks or shelving,
04:03
so the same unit can now be used
04:06
for an office or storage location.
04:07
The doors can actually swap out, so you can actually put on
04:10
a rigid panel with a window unit in it for climate control,
04:14
or a connector module that would allow you to actually
04:17
connect multiple units together, which gives you
04:19
larger and kind of compartmentalized living spaces,
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so now this same kit of parts, this same unit
04:26
can actually serve as a living room, bedroom or bathroom,
04:28
or an office, a living space and secure storage.
04:32
Sounds like a great idea, but how do you make it real?
04:39
So the first idea I had, initially, was just
04:42
to go the federal and state governments and go,
04:44
"Here, take it, for free."
04:45
But I was quickly told that, "Boy, our government
04:48
doesn't really work like that." (Laughter)
04:50
Okay. Okay. So maybe I would start a nonprofit
04:52
to kind of help consult and get this idea going
04:56
along with the government, but then I was told,
04:59
"Son, our government looks to private sector
05:01
for things like this."
05:04
Okay. So maybe I would take this whole idea and go
05:05
to private corporations that would have this mutually shared
05:08
benefit to it, but I was quickly told by some corporations
05:11
that my personal passion project was not a brand fit
05:14
because they didn't want their logos stamped
05:18
across the ghettos of Haiti.
05:21
Now, I wasn't just obsessed. I was outraged. (Laughter.)
05:23
So I decided, kind of told myself,
05:29
"Oh yeah? Watch this. I'll do it myself." (Laughter)
05:33
Now, this quickly, my day job sent me to work out of
05:39
our Milan office for a few months, so I was like,
05:41
what will I do? So I actually scheduled sleep on my calendar,
05:45
and spent the 8-hour time difference on conference calls
05:47
with material suppliers, manufacturers and potential customers.
05:50
And we found through this whole process, we found
05:55
this great little manufacturer in Virginia,
05:56
and if his body language is any indication,
05:58
that's the owner — (Laughter) — of what it's like
06:00
for a manufacturer to work directly with a designer,
06:03
you've got to see what happens here. (Laughter)
06:05
But G.S. Industries was fantastic.
06:08
They actually built three prototypes for us by hand.
06:10
So now we have prototypes that can show that four people
06:15
can actually sleep securely and much more comfortably
06:18
than a tent could ever provide.
06:20
And they actually shipped them here to Texas for us.
06:25
Now, a funny thing started happening.
06:26
Other people started to believe in what we were doing,
06:28
and actually offered us hangar space, donated hangar
06:30
space to us. And then the Georgetown Airport Authority
06:32
was bent over backwards to help us with anything we needed.
06:34
So now we had a hangar space to work in,
06:39
and prototypes to demo with.
06:40
So in one year, we've negotiated manufacturing agreements,
06:43
been awarded one patent, filed our second patent,
06:47
talked to multiple people, demoed this to FEMA
06:50
and its consultants to rave reviews,
06:52
and then started talking to some other people who requested
06:54
information, this little group called the United Nations.
06:57
And on top of that, now we have
06:59
a whole plethora of other individuals that have come up
07:01
and started to talk to us from doing it for mining camps,
07:04
mobile youth hostels, right down to the World Cup
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and the Olympics.
07:10
So, in closing, on this whole thing here
07:12
is hopefully very soon we will not have to
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respond to these painful phone calls that we get
07:24
after disasters where we don't really have anything
07:26
to sell or give you yet.
07:28
Hopefully very soon we will be there,
07:30
because we are destined,
07:33
obsessed with making it real.
07:35
Thank you. (Applause)
07:39
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the speaker:

Michael McDaniel - Graphic designer
Michael McDaniel is a graphic designer using his skills to help people in meaningful ways.

Why you should listen

Michael McDaniel has worked on a wide range of projects for clients including MTV, Comcast, AT&T, American Airlines, Best Buy, HP, Sprint and Disney. His designs have been widely recognized; he's received awards from the Society of Environmental Graphic Designers for work at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, and from Cooper Union for a conceptual redesign of the interstate highway system.

Prompted by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans, McDaniel began working in his spare time for five years straight on what would become the Exo Reaction Housing System -- portable, cheap disaster relief shelters. He is a principal designer at frog and the founder and C.E.O. at Reaction Systems, Inc.

More profile about the speaker
Michael McDaniel | Speaker | TED.com