How Did a Styrofoam Coffee Cup Inspire an Emergency Housing Unit Design?

The EXO housing systems are reusable and restackable and were inspired by a Styrofoam coffee cup. Reaction, Inc.

Michael McDaniel didn't set out to build an “Endor bunker.”

In 2005, just days after Hurricane Katrina, the Mississippi native was appalled by the squalid conditions in makeshift disaster shelters like the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome, where 20,000 displaced residents camped on Army surplus cots without adequate food or water.  

McDaniel, then a graphic designer at Frog in Austin, was inspired to create a better solution for disaster-response housing. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers take an average of 90 days to be deployed to a disaster site. McDaniel wanted something that could be shipped and assembled in 24 hours.

The answer, strangely enough, came in a Styrofoam coffee cup. McDaniel noticed how an overturned disposable coffee cup looked a lot like a basic shelter — roof, walls, floor — and how Styrofoam cups could be easily stacked in “sleeves” for packaging and shipment.

Ten years later, with more than $10 million in funding and a full-time staff of designers and engineers, McDaniel has built the EXO, a 72-square-foot (7-square-meter) aluminum pod that comfortably sleeps four people and can be fully assembled in just two minutes.

McDaniel calls the EXO “rapid-response emergency housing.” Star Wars geeks and doomsday preppers call it an “Endor bunker” for its passing resemblance to the Imperial outpost raided by Luke, Leah and Han in "Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi." 

EXO shelters are simple by design. They are delivered in two pieces, an aircraft-grade aluminum shell and a steel and birchwood base. Both pieces can easily be lifted and moved by four adults and snapped together without tools or machinery.

Features of each EXO unit include:

4 foldout beds

2 recessed ceiling fans and floor ventilation for climate control

Interior LED lighting

2 power outlets for charging phones and devices

A locking door that can be opened with RFID tags or manual keys

Exterior LED displays for identifying individual pods/occupants

This shot shows the interior of an EXO housing unit.
Reaction, Inc.

But perhaps the most useful feature is the EXO's stackability. A standard flatbed truck can haul 16 EXO shells stacked horizontally like Dixie cups along with detached bases. McDaniel imagines deploying thousands of EXO units in 24 hours or less via truck or train to disaster areas and war zones. 

But first, he needs a buyer. The U.S. government isn't interested. FEMA is still reeling from its semi-disastrous deployment of “trailers” post-Katrina. The federal relief agency spent $2.7 billion on 145,000 mobile homes (roughly $19,000 each) that turned out to contain dangerous levels of formaldehyde. And nongovernmental aid organizations balked at the EXO's price tag, around $6,000 per unit. 

Not ready to abandon his dream of delivering EXO units to refugee camps and migrant labor outposts, McDaniel is courting private industry. He recently struck a deal with Hyatt to deliver 40 slightly upgraded units — only two beds per EXO, cushier bedding, decorative walls — that could be used as pay-per-night crash pads at music festivals like Coachella or Bonnaroo. Hyatt also paid for 40 standard units to be donated to disaster relief, in a sort of buy one-donate one deal.

With only 40 specialty units ordered by Hyatt, McDaniel needs to find more corporate buyers to fund the original save-the-world mission of the EXO.

“That's the irony of it, isn't it?” McDaniel told Fast Company. “Capitalism.”