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A crew from the Natural Resources Research Institute assembles a rapid response house.


Some assembly required

A crew from the Natural Resources Research Institute assembles a rapid response house in a special demonstration in late April. The process takes a group of six people about four hours to complete.

Shelter from the storm

NRRI researchers develop rapid response emergency housing

By Rick Moore

Published on May 26, 2005

Seemingly the only thing predictable about natural disasters is that another one lurks just around the corner. In the last year alone, we've experienced a devastating 2004 hurricane season on our shores and seen almost unimaginable losses overseas from last December's tsunami. And an early forecast calls for a worse-than-average tropical storm season for 2005.

But a promising concept may help meet our nation's--and the world's--emergency-housing needs. Researchers at the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) at the University of Minnesota, Duluth have come up with an innovative, wood-based "containerized" house--dubbed a "rapid response house"--that can offer temporary shelter for victims of disaster and be used for other purposes, as well.

The rapid response housing kit comes in an 8-by-20-foot box (a standard-sized shipping container) that partially disassembles and then reassembles into a 20-by-24-foot home with two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen. The house can be put together by a half dozen people in about four hours using little more for tools than mallets to tap the wall panels into place. Electrical and plumbing systems are built into the walls, and all construction materials meet HUD housing standards. And as for the box that the house is shipped in? Well, that becomes part of the house, too.

"It has everything you need to put up a temporary structure or, depending on where you're living, a somewhat permanent structure," says Pat Donahue, the project leader and director of NRRI's Market Oriented Wood Technology Program. Donahue likens the process to buying a piece of furniture from the mega-retailer IKEA, pulling it out of the box, and putting it together, only "in our case, the box is part of the assembly."

He says that the rapid response housing system could be used for disaster and war relief, military shelter, refugee housing, workforce housing for large-scale projects like dam-building, and even for helping to mitigate homelessness.

Rapid response housing could someday offer an alternative to trailers and other temporary housing options employed by federal agencies, and in late April NRRI offered an assembly demonstration for officials from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), the Red Cross, the Economic Development Administration, and the Department of Defense. "They were very encouraging," says Donahue. "They confirmed that I was on the right track." He adds that he's "trying to create enough interest to get some kind of priming-the-pump reaction out of the federal government."

Although some of the federal officials still consider the rapid response housing idea to be in the early, conceptual stages, Donahue is forging ahead to refine the details. He hopes to produce a batch of 50 houses for field use, and says he has heard from about a dozen people who have expressed interest in investing in the idea. The prototype home cost about $24,000, but it is expected that mass production would lower costs significantly.

And while there are a number of other people working on containerized housing (or "mobile architecture," as one person describes it), Donahue feels that NRRI's product is at the forefront. Ultimately, he sees rapid response housing as potentially giving rebirth to the wood-products and housing industry, in northern Minnesota and beyond.

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