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A Dream House for Emergencies

Raise your hand if you ever built a dollhouse as a kid. It started as a simple pile of plastic walls but, through the magic of toy manufacturing, it soon became a home, sprung forth from a tiny box. And as you, unfettered by lack of tools or general mechanical knowledge, inserted tab A into slot B, you thought to yourself “why can’t all building be this simple?”

Meanwhile, far from the peace and serenity of your childhood play room, people are suffering. Flood damage in Nashville and New Orleans, hurricane damage in Florida, earthquake damage in Haiti; no one here has the luxury of playing with dolls. But is there a lesson to be learned from your childhood constructions? With their newest design, the entrepreneurs at Lake Forest Panel Systems went from the dollhouse to the safe house, creating faster, simpler emergency housing.

Using pre-fabricated panels that can be slid together and pulled apart, these homes can fold flat for easy storage and can be stacked 8-high on the back of a truck. Simple and spare, you won’t find these units in Good Housekeeping. But for struggling families and medical professionals living out of tents or trailers, these homes just may feel like a dreamhouse.

“If you look at emergency housing solutions today, which are trailers, mobile homes or tents, they are not fast response because you are moving them one by one; you would need a trailer to tow a mobile home,” says president of Lake Forest Panel Systems Jim Ducay. “Our system creates housing for 64 people on the back of one flatbed truck.”

As the CEO of Lake Forest Technologies, Ducay was already working with prefabricated walls in traditional home construction when he discovered Homasote. A 98-percent post-consumer board, Homasote has been used in construction since 1909 and, most recently has helped create SIPs (structurally integrated panels). These pre-fabricated wall units are used on many environmental projects today, like Philadelphia’s 100k House. But Ducay found SIPs too permanent, taking a little more hardware to create. So Lake Forest created a slot panel system, laminating this material over a piece of highly insulated foam and creating fully functional walls that can guard against wind and rain while erect, but can be stored flat, awaiting the next disaster. After touring the Homasote facility and seeing the material’s versatility, Lake Forest created not only temporary walls but furniture. Now each unit comes equipped with a kitchen table, chairs and even a bed, all punched from flat boards.

“The problem with SIPs is that they then take them and take the nailgun out and nail it all in place,” Ducay says. “If we could take that and design it in such a system that you could take it, put it up for a period of time for a Katrina or Haiti situation for 12 or 24 months, take it down, put it in storage and use it again. It’s that temporary concept that we have been developing over the past year.”

Once they had the concept, Ducay and his partners set out to find collaborators to help with the design and product rollout. They contacted Kelly O’Brian Gavin at the Greater Susquehanna Keystone Innovation Zone (KIZ), who liked the concept so much, she gave them a facility and connected them with Bucknell University’s Small Business Development Center, adding design touches--like the flat Homasote furniture--to make the experience more user friendly.

“These homes can literally be put together by two people and a rock in one hour,” says Gavin. “We are now reaching out to legislators to see if there are ways to allow disaster victims to come and see the actual units. You get a better feel when you can actually see it, taste it, touch it, smell it, the whole nine and see how easily it goes together.”

Today, Lake Forest Panel Systems has a completely designed product and is  scouring the disaster relief industry for new buyers. For the past two months Gavin and Ducay have been gladhanding household names like the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity. But their most likely candidate may be FEMA, who is currently looking to replace their infamous emergency relief trailers. After a 2008 CDC report confirmed that FEMA trailers showed unhealthy levels of formaldehyde, the agency released a request for proposals, and are still searching for a permanent supplier to provide “up to 1,400 manufactured homes and 1,900 regular park models for use in future disasters.”

“We will take extraordinary precautions and require that all new-production units that FEMA purchases test below the lowest existing 'standard,' and below the midpoint of the range that CDC calls 'typical' for conventional homes,” said FEMA Administrator David Paulison in the 2008 release.
In order to reach compliance with FEMA’s stricter standards, Lake Forest installed a small ventilation system in each panel unit and, through a partnership with Bucknell, the prototype will be tested for clean air compliance this year. But the creators are confident in their materials, which have been used in construction for over 100 years.

“We had some discussions about being even greener with our materials, using soy-based products but we weren’t confident that it had the history behind it that it would stand the test of time,” says Ducay. “We are trying to meet the needs of the market and be compliant with all those regulations so we took a much more cautious and conservative approach.”

While Lake Forest believes its product would greatly benefit disaster victims across the country, they estimate their design could help strengthen homes here in PA by providing new jobs. Through their work with state legislators in their search for a buyer, the company has committed to opening manufacturing facilities in the state. Becoming FEMA’s supplier would create 60 new jobs and would allow Lake Forest to compete for state and federal contracts.

For now, Ducay and Gavin are putting the word out that the disaster dream house is for sale. Hopefully you will never need to build it.


John Steele is a freelance writer and blogger in Philadelphia. He enjoys music snobbery, trash television and laughing at hipsters. Send feedback here.

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Photos:


Lake Forest Technologies President and CEO James Ducay walks through the prototype emergency housing unit his company designed at its warehouse in Snyder County.

All Photographs by Brad Bower
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