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Interlocking mats turn shipping pallets into floors: you wouldn't know it if you haven't visited a refugee camp, but most of those white tents don't have floors.

That goes even for the prefabricated houses. As a result, millions of people live out the most challenging years of their lives subjected to parasitic infections, waterborne ailments, and hypothermia in colder climates.

Two students of architecture, Sam Brisendine and Scott Key, first noticed the problem when they were assigned a project through their program at Rice University in Houston, Texas, to design a temporary relief shelter. They shifted their attention to the floors and eventually devised an elegant design that ships well.

"We set out to design a raised flooring system that met all of the specific criteria unique to mass sheltering," Scott says. "That means cost-effective, highly mobile, incredibly flexible, and above all, warm, clean, and comfortable. We call this system the Emergency Floor."

Early on, Brisendine and Key stumbled across a parallel problem: supply chains. They needed a way to manufacture and deliver floors to the camps. The team crafted a first design that could be used as both a shipping pallet and a tent floor. Then they hit on a better idea.

Formal refugee camps are often located far from the cities of their host countries, and they require an enormous volume of shipments. Goods are packed on shipping pallets that arrive, but don't leave. The camps import far more than they export, generating piles of unused shipping pallets as waste.

Subsequent iterations of the shelter floor use the wood from pallets as support frames for the flooring. The flooring itself is a mat made entirely from post-consumer plastic. It's designed to fit over a pallet and link together with other mats to connect multiple pallets. The flooring units are modular: they can be attached in different variations to accommodate different housing structures and family sizes.

The floors are undergoing their first pilot in rural Sweden. The testing is in conjunction with a subsidiary of IKEA focused on relief shelters where the flooring has picked up a new IKEA-esque nickname, E-Flor. Brisendine and Key hope to begin two further pilots later this year in refugee camps in Lebanon and Iraq.

There were more than 46 million people of concern to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in mid-2014, the latest date for which there are figures. That marks an increase of 3 million people from just six months earlier at the end of 2013. Although more than half of the world's refugees are in cities, not camps, four-fifths of them are in developing countries. That could leave tens of millions of people without floors.

Despite a broader shift toward non-tent methods of housing in formal refugee camps, the need has outpaced construction. And snowstorms pounding the eastern Mediterranean this winter have left tens of thousands of Syrian refugees at risk. Challenges aren't always volume-based: in the Gaza Strip for example, restrictions on cement import has made it difficult to rebuild housing foundations damaged in conflict.

Brisendine and Key founded the social enterprise Good Works Studio, Inc., to develop the Emergency Floor. Key views the for-profit element of production as a critical component of their mission.

"Social entrepreneurship means harnessing the principles of capitalism to very explicitly right societal wrongs," Key says. "It means taking a creative approach to what can be an incredibly destructive force in the world to create permanent, self-sustaining, positive change."

Brisendine and Key received seed funding and business guidance from Rice University's OwlSpark startup accelerator. For the two of them, the decision to take the project from the classroom to the field was an easy one.

According to Key, "When you see opportunities, doggedly pursue them and finish what you start. The world has far too many unfinished, well-intended projects."
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Title Annotation:TECH BUZZ
Author:Schermerhorn, Jordan
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Jun 1, 2015
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