It’s never easy setting up shelter for disaster victims—just look at the lack of safe housing in Haiti years after the country’s infamous earthquake. Tents are hardly a long-term solution, and trailers are bulky and difficult to redeploy.
A startup called Visible Good has developed a shelter—also known as a Rapid Deployment Module (RDM)—that falls in between a tent and trailer: It’s light (none of the pieces weigh more than 20 pounds), takes about 25 minutes to set up with no training, folds up, and is completely modular. The RDMs are well on their way to deployment—the Army selected Visible Good through a grant program to design an extreme weather shelter, and the company has sold 26 RDMs to BP as part of the second phase of cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico (the trailers are used by staff in ecologically sensitive areas where trailers aren’t allowed).
Visible Good was founded by architect John Rossi and Tina Newman, a former consultant. For the past two years, the company has been working on the RDM. It’s not modeled on any other shelters out there. "There are a bunch of what I would call anti-models—we did not want to be this, we did not want to be that," says Rossi. "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."
The RDM resembles a trailer more than a tent, and it does have the amenities of a sturdier structure—good insulation, hard walls, windows, and locking doors. But it’s also nimble, with adjustable feet to lift it up and away from minor flooding and vermin and a shell made out of high-strength, high-impact plastic. No tools are required for setup, and the modular 9 foot by 14 foot base unit can attach to other prototype units, including a shower unit and latrine unit. "They ultimately function like Lego sets," says Newman.
Visible Good’s shelter can last between 10 and 20 years, except for the roof, which needs to be switched out around the three to five year mark. A decade might seem like a long time for a shelter to stay standing, but it’s not. "Haiti just had its third year anniversary, and look at where the tsunami hit in Thailand. There are still people displaced and tents in Palestinian territories that have been there for 28 years," says Rossi.
At the moment, Visible Good is working with the U.S. military on an extreme weather version of the RDM that can withstand Antarctica as well as the desert. According to Rossi, "The military requirements are very specific and they’re very aggressive." But the end goal of the military grant isn’t to come out with a product that can only be used internally—it’s to develop a rugged RDM that can be deployed widely.
The base RDM costs $15,500, not including volume discounts. That may sound like a lot, but Rossi points out that trailers and tents often never get redeployed, while the compact nature of the RDM makes it ideal for long-term use. Plus, he says, you can fit 10 RDMs in a 20-foot container, saving lots of money on shipping. "If the need is only three years or five years, you can fold the RDM, clean it up, take it and deploy it 2,000 miles away," he says.
In the next 24 to 36 months, Visible Good expects to launch a recreational version of the RDM to sell in places like REI. After that will come a luxury high-end unit made out of sustainably harvested teak wood.
Says Rossi: "Ideally, this is going to be the company that becomes very well known at least within its space. If people are looking for temporary shelter, we want to be the first thing they think of. We want to be known for our design, our innovative approach to things, our adaptability and flexibility and willingness to listen to the market."