Post-Disaster Shelter Innovation

Two architecture alumni and the USF Patent Office joined forces to bring the world a potential answer to disaster relief housing needs.

By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Jan. 29, 2012) – Many people were moved to send donations to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2009. At least one was inspired to go a lot further – helping to prepare for the need for shelter in the face of the world’s inevitable natural disasters.   

Next to food and water, obtaining protection from the elements – in short order – is a predictable necessity. Make it a structure that is easy-to-ship, that requires no skill, no tools and only a matter of a few hours to put together – one that can handle nearly any terrain – and you have, in a word, AbleNook, a “rapidly deployable modular dwelling.”

The brainchild of a pair of USF alumni, Sean Verdecia and Jason Ross, AbleNook could be the answer to sheltering displaced people in crisis around the world.

“In the heat of disheartening news and interviews with Katrina survivors, I decided to design a solution that would address the reoccurring problem of disasters everywhere,” said Verdecia. “I reached out to a like-minded friend and we began a research project to design a disaster relief solution. Our goal was to tackle every issue at hand logistically, rethink the problem from cradle to grave, and provide a sign of hope and security at the time people needed it most.”

To make AbleNook a viable product, crowd-funding via Kickstarter may save the day for the two USF School of Architecture and Community Design graduates. The deadline to reach a funding goal of $60,000 is Monday, February 4 at 2:52 p.m. EST. At this stage, the money is needed to complete a second prototype – one that will be field tested.

The design features touch on just about every imaginable concern. There’s full thermal insulation, adjustable leg jacks to handle wildly uneven terrain and integrated prewired electrical components. The structure is expandable and reusable. The bungalow design also facilitates passive cooling for hotter climates. A small porch deters isolation and fosters a sense of community.

“We knew it had to be sturdy and economical to build but also easy to deploy,” said Verdecia.  “And because time is of the essence and expertise is often limited, we knew we had to keep it simple with limited numbers of pieces and the material – extruded aluminum – makes it as light as we could possibly make it.”

In addition, the arched roof does double duty. It’s designed to channel and collect rainwater on both ends and the water is directed to a tank positioned at the back of the structure. Plus it can be clad in solar collecting skin or panels for energy generation.

Because the prefabricated modules and connections are shipped flat, they can be sent out to disaster areas in large numbers on trucks. The structures can be used not only as residences but also expanded to serve as schools, office space and for military operations.

The smallest unit – at 20 feet in length, 13 feet in height with a 10-foot ceiling – is comfortable. The dedicated mechanical and storage space suits a wide range of needs.

A major reason the AbleNook has reached this stage of development is because their architecture professor, Mark Weston, told them to take their invention seriously and sent them to USF’s Patents Office where they have been guided through the process of creating a workable business structure.

The Technology Transfer Office handles patents and licensing for USF intellectual property and also works with researchers and students from every part of the university to ready new inventions for potential licensing opportunities – all the elements of the patenting or copyrighting process.

“When we first walked into the USF Patent Office all we truly had was a well-developed idea,” said Ross. “They saw the potential in it from the start and have never stopped supporting us. They are extremely knowledgeable in the patent process, and even helped us seek out the grant we used to construct the prototype. They definitely go outside their job description to assist people like Sean and me.”

The office is focused on transferring cutting-edge research and innovation to the commercial marketplace. One goal is to see these projects generate revenue but they also offer the benefit of diversifying the economy and bringing jobs to our area.

Verdecia has every intention of seeing that happen.

“I grew up in Tampa Bay and I want to see this product bring jobs and prosperity to my hometown,” he said.

In recent years, the Patents and Licensing Office had a record-breaking 98 patents granted and 52 license/commercialization agreements, including the formation of 10 start-up companies (2012); the office helped put USF’s IPO ranking among the top 10 universities worldwide; it launched USF into the top 300 organizations worldwide for U.S.-granted patents and saw USF ranked in the top 20 for licensing income received (2010).

The pair’s unique ideas “came from addressing the problem, breaking it down to series of smaller problems, and then using design to solve those problems,” said Ross.

These are skills they honed earning their masters degrees at USF.

“The one thing that has really influenced us and helped us push the project to new levels would be the school’s culture. It has always been an extremely collaborative environment with so many backgrounds of people with different skill sets; it has always proved a great environment for innovation.” Ross said.

"This is an exciting project for those of us at the School of Architecture and Community Design because it showcases two of our recent graduates as they apply the talent and array of skills developed here,” said SACD Director Robert McLeod. “They are able to bring a fresh approach to an ongoing problem and, in so doing, develop a product that offers an inventive housing solution. The flexible and intelligent system of assembly developed for the AbleNook project is an inspiration to current students at the SACD."

Verdecia describes his experience as “very challenging and transformative, which helps you to look at conventional things in a new light. It was the journey through many studios and endless study which informed the project. We are taught to study the masters, so we looked to people like Jean Prouve and Dieter Rams, who are the gods of the industrial design world. Architecture is a cross-disciplinary profession, so implementing their design philosophies was an intuitive progression.”

Philosophies are one thing; the nuts and bolts are another. Building AbleNook was a journey into the unknown.

“This hadn't really been done before, and it's not like one can just Google how to do this,” Verdecia said. “At the beginning we didn't even know what the parts were going to be made out of. When we would go to manufactures and try to explain what we wanted, it was hard for some of them to see how their products could be used beyond their usual intended purposes. So a lot of searching and dialogue was necessary.

“It is much more difficult to simplify a product, and that takes a lot of time and careful thought to edit something down to its purist form of logic. We had so many factors to consider, like cost of manufacturing, durability, human interaction, deployment, marketing, engineering – all of these had to work in concert and if one note was off, we would stay with the problem until it was solved. It’s been like getting on a rollercoaster, and finding out the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know.”

Considering its purpose, this relief housing structure also manages to be quite attractive.

“The aesthetic ended up being a result of the unit’s functionality. I think that what people really like about the aesthetic is that you can clearly read how the AbleNook works, just from looking at it,” Ross said.

Verdecia added, “When we started, we decided to reject the designer’s ego that seems to pollute so many other attempts at modular dwellings. Our design would be what it needed to be to function and we would ignore aesthetics. Ironically, the more something is an expression of its function, the better it looks.”

And where did the name come from?

“As we were outlining our criteria for the problems we wanted to solve in modular construction, we realized that anything that could solve all these issues would be very ‘able,’ and I've always liked the idea of an intimate space to call your own, something more personal and human, like a ‘nook,’” Verdecia said. “As soon as we said it once, the name stuck.”

Architecture runs in both the inventors’ families. Both of Ross’ parents were architects as was Verdecia’s father – who recommended he study medicine instead. “I chose architecture because it's so multifaceted and I would be able to indulge my artsy proclivities while still being able to eat. I thought it was an amazing thing to be able to imagine something and then project it into reality where it can be interacted with and hopefully have a positive impact.”

Verdecia, the AbleNook Company’s president, is an architectural/industrial designer. He currently works at Alfonso Architects in Ybor City, collaborating “with great architects that were once distant, exalted personae on a library shelf to me,” he said. It’s a supportive environment and the place where the original AbleNook prototype is housed.

“The office has been super generous and given me half a block of warehouse space to face the challenge of building our first functional unit,” he said.

Meanwhile other projects keep him busy.

“My first project here was a high-end golf resort called Streamsong, which just opened. I've designed a police and firefighters monument in San Antonio while also designing some of the more fluid elements of Tampa International Airport, which will open to the public Feb.14th. So if you travel internationally you get to see the result of many sleepless nights and great teamwork. I'm currently working on a new Moffitt clinic which will be near USF campus.”

Ross is currently working full-time at Gensler, a major architecture firm in Atlanta.

“I’ve gotten some really great experiences in a wide range of projects types. AbleNook has been my fun side project,” he said.

Fun is turning into a serious business concern as the clock ticks down on the Kickstarter deadline.

“Now we are at a point where we can move to mass production and we want to get AbleNook global,” Verdecia said. “We’re well on our way.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.