Helping hands

Houston Enterprise Tackles the Refugee Problem You Don’t Know Exists: Floors

And they need your help!

By Emma Hurt July 10, 2015

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Put a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs, so the idiom goes. But what about a floor under their feet? A little known problem for the currently 59.5 million displaced persons worldwide is just that: raised flooring. Most live on wet or frozen, often polluted, and generally uncomfortable ground for 12-17 years (the average stay of a refugee). But two graduates from the Rice School of Architecture have set out to do something about that.

It started in 2012 with the Rice Building Workshop, a seminar dedicated to engaging Rice architecture students with the broader community. During the class, two Texans, Scott Austin Key and Sam Brisendine, came up with Emergency Core, essentially a transportable box containing all the goods necessary for a refugee shelter, like a water filtration system, tent and toilets. The box was designed to disassemble at its destination and serve as the floor of the shelter. As Key explained to Houstonia, at the International Disaster Conference in New Orleans, the duo were told that creating the floor was the “most interesting thing” about their idea. After learning more, they realized raised flooring, or the lack thereof, comprises a huge problem for refugee camps.

The average displaced person is given a canvas tent and maybe Polyethylene tarp to cover the ground. Real floors, Key and Brisendine found out, are simply too expensive—or at least, they have been until now. The team went through many iterations of their product, “stripping features until we were really left with something that solved the problem at the right price point.” What they came up with is a flooring system made of 90 percent found material, in this case, wooden shipping pallets, covered with connectable plastic tiles of their design. So about a year ago, Emergency Core became Emergency Floor. Whereas the average available raised floor runs about $20 per square foot, Emergency Floor plans are a $2 alternative. The solution, according to Key, is “working with the existing supply chain” and trying to identify and repurpose materials that can be found in every country in the world. Since refugee camps are not producing anything, all materials must be shipped in on these pallets.

Emergency Floor has qualified for a $150,000 grant from USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures Program, which is contingent upon the duo raising $50,000 themselves. As a result they launched a crowdsourcing campaign on IndieGoGo, which ends on July 15. At the moment they are only about $15,000 short. You can find their campaign page here.

Emergency Floor is finishing up an uninhabited beta test of its shipping pallet model in Sweden that “did very well over a very cold Swedish winter,” and has now been cleared for inhabited use. New funding will go toward the prototyping and piloting of other models. For each product the team needs to gather data proving safety and effectiveness before large NGOs will agree to adopt and distribute them. The next flooring idea is still mostly under wraps, according to Key, but he did reveal that instead of a pallet it will use the basic concept of a sandbag, and instead of sand it will use local dirt.

Houston has served as a supportive home for this new company and humanitarian effort, from conception to production. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation provided some of the team’s first funding, through Rice’s Owlspark. And as Key explained, “In terms of prototyping and manufacturing [Houston] is one of the best places you can be…. There are few manufacturing technologies I don’t have access to here.” Given the Space City’s reputation as a philanthropic one, hopefully Houstonians will continue to support this locally grown and globally minded humanitarian enterprise.

Find Emergency Floor’s crowdsourcing link here. Learn more about the project here.

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