On the Job

For the displaced, engineer gives them shelter

John Rossi and intern Rousseau Nutter tested panels for walls and floor at Visible Good in Newburyport.
Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe
John Rossi and intern Rousseau Nutter tested panels for walls and floor at Visible Good in Newburyport.

With more than 30 million people worldwide displaced from their homes by natural disasters last year, architect John Rossi is on a mission to develop an emergency shelter design that could prove useful during humanitarian crises. Cofounder of Visible Good of Newburyport, Rossi has devised a lightweight, folding shelter called a Rapid Deployment Module, or RDM, that is a hybrid between a trailer and a tent.

Are there any real-world examples of this module in use?

The RDM shelter was used by British Petroleum (BP) environmental cleanup crews in the ongoing cleanup operation of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We sent several to Oklahoma this summer to provide temporary housing for families who lost homes after the tornadoes. The US Army awarded us a grant to research and develop an “extreme” module that can withstand bitter Antarctica cold or scorching desert heat and endure 100 mile winds.

There are many emergency shelter technologies — what makes yours different?


The name Rapid Deployment Module says it all. Some emergency shelters can take quite a while to put up. Ours can be assembled in under 30 minutes with no tools. The parts are universal, like a Lego, and the buildings fit together to make bigger buildings.

You’ve been working on prototypes for years. What inspired you to begin your first sketch?

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I was doing a ton of work in the module world, those prefabricated houses that go together in a day. I wondered what it would be like to have a tiny building in a flat pack that could expand. Nine years ago, I did sketches, put them away, then took them out again three years ago after the devastation in Haiti and Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Millions of people are displaced by natural disasters including, recently, hundreds of Chinese who were victims of an earthquake. What happens to these people?

What often happens is many people never end up going back to where they are from. Relocation becomes semipermanent, if not permanent. In Haiti, for example, there are still hundreds of thousands living in tent camps.

You have a demonstration RDM set up in Newburyport. How do you use it?

I’m sitting in here right now, talking on the phone. The vent screens are open, and there’s a little folding table and desk chair. You don’t need a lamp because the roof is translucent and there’s plenty of natural daylight. One engineer’s son, Liam, does his homework here and has even slept in it. He’s 13 years old. We like to say the shelter has passed the “Liam test.”

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at