Disaster Relief/Emergency Shelter
Dome Building Party: July 18, 1998

Reality Sculptors Emergency/Disaster-Relief Shelter Prototype

...And so they built a cardboard house...

(Well, not cardboard, in this case, but it could be done just as easily, and at much less expense, using cardboard instead of plastic...)

The following are pictures from a dome-building party held at my house in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Various friends and members of the domesteading list came together on a very hot summer day to build a prototype of a disaster-relief shelter out of a corrugated plastic material called "Corrulite".

This has been a long-running topic of discussion on domesteading, and a pet project of mine since about 1991, when we were designing similar emergency shelter domes out of cardboard material in college. However, one of the perennial questions I got from people as they wrestled with the concept of a cardboard shelter was "But won't cardboard melt in the rain?" No matter what I said about coating them with wax or plastic, or even pointing out that milk cartons held liquids for weeks on end could seem to dispel this gut feeling in people. So I decided to just go with plastic for this version...and do you know what? I never heard one person that day talk about it melting in the rain. :-) In fact, just as I'd hoped, people got on to the more interesting and advanced design questions such as:

"How are we going to seal the seams so it doesn't leak?"
"How should we make the door and windows?"
"What sort of floor should it have?"
"How can we deliver these?"

On the topic of delivery, I'd always just thought about attaching small parachutes to a shelter-package and throwing them out the back of airplanes over disaster areas. However, one very interesting suggestion came out of a friend at this party. He noted that you'd end up with probably thousands (or tens of thousands!) of parachutes that would have only been used once and would be all over the landing site. While I'm sure uses might spring up for them, this would be an expensive one-time usage, and if we were to try and collect them all for re-use, that could also be quite expensive and difficult. The suggestion they made, which I really like, was to integrate a delivery mechanism into the packaging design. Specifically, he suggested using the same Corrulite (or cardboard, depending on which material we used) material to build a package around the dome panels, and a "wing" of sorts that extended out from the package. In essence, it would look and work like a maple tree seed-pod, and would twirl around like a helicopter as it descended to the ground. I thought this was a brilliant idea, and hope to implement it in a future delivery package design.

The US Corrulite Corporation that I bought the material from has since been bought up by a competitor named Diversi-Plast. There are also numerous other vendors of corrugated plastic material. It's pretty much like corrugated cardboard, except made of HDPE ("Type 2") recyclable plastic. The same stuff you'll find in milk bottles. (You may have also seen it as the plastic tote bins that the US Post Office uses for sorting & carrying mail.)

It comes in a variety of weights and styles, allowing for different rigidity requirements, and in about 30 different stock colors, or they can custom-match colors as needed. All-in-all, it's a very neat material and I've found numerous other uses for it throughout the years. I recommend it highly.

Closeup of a yellow piece of Corrulite. For the disaster relief shelter, we used the 160#/MSF weight material (that's 160 lbs. per 1000 sq. ft.) in the double-faced laminated style. It was rigid enough for our needs, although it also comes in weights up to 500#/MSF, which is incredibly rigid. (You'd have a tough time bending it with bare hands.) I bought sheets in 5 bright colors, and the translucent "natural" color, which is like a milk jug or some juice containers.
I suspect that in a disaster zone, even if we shipped single-colored kits, that people would begin to swap parts around and make distinctive patterns in their shelters, and they'd probably end up looking somewhat like the one you see here. And the bright colors would certainly add a bit of cheer to an otherwise somber situation.

This model was about 12' (3.65m) in diameter, and about 5' (1.52m) high in the center. It had a covered floor area of approximately 113 ft2 (10.5 m2). It was actually a 1/2 or 1/3 scale model of the shelters I envision for eventual deployment, sized to house a family and their possessions. (24 or 36 feet in diameter.)

As a proof of concept, I think this did wonderfully. Many people had heard me talking about emergency shelters and cardboard houses for years, but I'm not sure how many of them actually believed it was possible, and how many were just humoring me. :-) After this day, everyone knew it was possible.

It's still possible, and long overdue. There are disasters hitting people somewhere on the planet roughly every 6 hours, by my calculations and observations over the past decade or so.

This shelter design, while not palatial, is intended to be mass-producible, air-droppable, easy to assemble with no prior experience (the instructions would be pictorial to avoid language/education barriers) and most of all, inexpensive. (The model you see here was created with US$70.00 worth of Corrulite material, and there were lots of scraps left over. In fact, the binder clips used to hold it together cost more than the dome material itself! :-) If made of cardboard, I predict costs would drop by about a further factor of ten, based on raw material costs.)

If you'd like to help sculpt this idea into reality for the millions of disaster victims each year, or the 400,000,000 homeless people currently on the planet, please read the Contributions and Support page to find out how you can help.

(All of the following pictures should be clickable if you want a closer look.)

Materials and Tools

Corrulite triangles The shelter consists of 2 different sized triangular panels, and is designed to be produced in high volume using traditional cardboard box-cutting presses and machinery. (Since we were doing this all by hand, I invited 25 or 30 of my friends to help and we made quick work of it. :-) )

Joe and the crimper Malcolm Rieke (in the hat) does a lot of woodworking, and devised an ingenious crimping device that gave us the mechanical leverage to put a crease along each edge and allowed us to fold the tabbed edges which became the integrated reinforcing beams of the dome.

Joe Moore is standing at the crimper.

Bob and the crimper Bob Cain (left) and Kurth Reynolds (right) operate the crimping press to fold a panel. Malcolm Rieke (in the hat, and again looking the other way :-) ) watches his invention in action. Marc Majcher (far left) looks on.

In the foreground are a few panels clipped together. We used large binder clips for the temporary construction (I bought a case of them from Staples and still have about 300 of them around the house. :-) In production, though, we would very likely use the large brass staples you sometimes see on cardboard boxes.

Putting it all together

Eric and a pentagon Eric Messick displays a completed pentagon. Not only are they colorful, but also incredibly light. (The entire dome in these pictures weight approximately 32 pounds. A 24 foot version would weigh approximately 129 pounds, and a 36 foot version would weigh approximately 290 pounds, if made from the same 160#/MSF material.)

Joining a hex and a pent panel Joe Moore and Eric Messick show how hex and pent panels connect.

Starting to put it all together We begin the larger assembly of the pents and hexes into a dome. Pictured from left to right are Bernadette Buck, Joe Moore, Kurth Reynolds, and Patrick Salsbury.

Almost done - outside Starting to take shape...

Almost done - inside detail An inside view. Pictured from left to right are Lyle Scheer, Mike Crowley, and Jeremy Horsfall.

Finished and colorful Lyle Scheer looks on at our completed product!

Creative Costuming

Since this was a party, people got creative with the scraps and devised an impromptu Corrulite fashion show...

Archangel Crowley King Skeeter Queen Romana Binder clips as fashion accessories

From left to right: Archangel Mike Crowley, King Skeeter Murphy, Queen Romana Machado, and (Princess?) Bernadette Buck, displaying the latest in binder clip fashion accessories. :-)

The funny thing is, not only do I have piles of Corrulite scraps sitting around years later, but I've seen some of these hats & such still lurking around at my friends houses! :-)


Domehead Eric Domehead Joe Domehead Pat

At the end of the day, we took turns poking our head out the top of the dome, where we'd left a roof vent. (It was seriously hot that day! The dome quickly heated up to sauna-like temperatures.) This is an area where something like an opaque cardboard (preferably with a white coating) might outperform the plastic material by blocking some of the heat from the sun.

Pictured from left to right are Eric Messick, Joe Moore, and Patrick Salsbury.

(Descriptive text and self-references such as "I" by Patrick Salsbury)

Barefoot & Patrick Salsbury

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