Amber: Hi welcome to The BusinessMakers Show. I’m Amber Ambrose and today my guests are Sam Brisendine and Scott Key, Co-founders of Emergency Floor. Welcome to the show guys.
Sam: Appreciate it.
Amber: So what it Emergency Floor?
Sam: Well it’s a modular insulated flooring tile that keeps refugee families living in temporary shelters warm and dry in the winter and then it also protects them from disease from the ground below. It’s a 2’ x 3’ plastic tile that feels more like foam so it’s comfortable and it provides insulation as well.
Amber: Obviously there’s a story behind the origin of this product and company, I would love to hear that.
Scott: Sam and I met when we were both grad students in the Rice School of Architecture and we were both looking for an outlet to use our professional skills to make an impact. We started as students on this project and that’s kind of where we were exposed to the refugee crisis, it had started making the news and we started learning about that.
Amber: Where in particular?
Scott: Mostly the Syrian conflict had just started while we were students and it was in the news quite a bit. We started understanding the conditions that they live in and it was an obvious outlet for our professional skills to be put to use and our first product – we plan to introduce many more but our first product is Emergency Floor.
Amber: How did you come up with the design for it?
Sam: It’s evolved over time. What it looks like now, there’s been like six different versions and it’s really been us fine-tuning constraints of costs and manufacturing and shipping, kind of that whole slow-cooked process over the past several years.
Scott: It’s interesting because in a lot of markets end-user feedback is readily available and that’s not the case in aide and especially with refugees. So we had a lot of false starts in the beginning where we, using our Western intuition-designed products that were not well suited in some way. It took a while to understand all of the variables we were designing for. While we were still students we caught the interest of IKEA who was developing a new refugee shelter and that was one of our first launching points to start getting a little bit of credibility into the industry to literally start getting people to return our emails.
Amber: Partner with a company.
Scott: And ultimately helped us land our U.S. Agency for International Development grant that we’ve been working on for the last 2 years.
Amber: How did you get the information that you needed? Why flooring?
Scott: There’s 65.5 million refugees in the world right now, somewhere between 15 and 20 million of them live in temporary shelters. The design of those shelters hasn’t changed since World War II; it’s the same design that housed British soldiers in World War II. They’re 300 pounds. We’ve been in tents in Iraq that stared leaking after 4 months. So there’s a real need for provisions but for us as architects what is a building; it’s a floor, it’s walls. It’s the roof, it keeps you dry and warm. Almost exclusively refugee shelters don’t have floors and that seemed like a gross oversight to us and so as our first product I said look, that’s something that we can tackle. We can understand the variables and create a product that solves this problem. So that was the impetus of floor.
Sam: I’d say one of the light moments was going to a conference, like an aide conference, where they had all these fantastic products including inflatable structures that you could literally drive a car on top of. But even those still had a tarp for a floor which is basically what the refugee families get and are expected to live on for several years at a time.
Amber: So when you’re in the field installing these products where do you go? I know there’s multiple refugee situations around the world right now, where are your focuses now?
Scott: So our pilot primarily right now is based in Lebanon right on the Syrian border, t’s in the Bekka Valley. The camps that we’ve piloted our floors in with U.S. aide funding are right along the border, you can see the city of Homs from one of the camps so it’s right there. The families cross into safety and set up camp essentially.
Amber: What is your process like when you get there? How do you get the product there? What is installation like? Do you have to go through different parties or are you they to oversee it? I’m just so curious.
Sam: Well our product is extremely light which is great because in the field where there isn’t equipment and things like that to offload, they just sort of show up on a truck in a big cardboard box and we just count off stacks of tiles and hand them off to the families. It’s really easy for them to in one or two loads carry off enough for their shelter.
Scott: Yeah, obviously like Sam said no forklifts, no loading docks so that’s part of the design curriculum.
Amber: Which is part of what went into the design.
Sam: There’s no tools required, there’s no fasteners; there’s no pieces you can lose. And there’s redundancy in the design so that parts of our floor can actually break and still function. So that was kind of some feedback that we saw through other company’s products was to try to get it – it’s a single unit that is repeated and there’s no other parts and pieces and it makes it a lot more durable in the field.
Scott: Part of our design challenge is as you can imagine when I say 15 to 20 million that’s kind of abstract but it’s an enormous scale and so a solution that requires supervision from the non-governmental organizations that actually give these products out, if it required supervision or manpower to install them it’s not a great solution.
Scott: So part of our design criteria that we hold ourselves to was that we could give a child 4 tiles and it would be intuitive for them to go together and they do puzzle piece together essentially. We had a shelter where the husband had died in Syria and the mother was overwhelmed and her children installed the whole shelter’s worth of floor so it met that design criteria phenomenally and that was definitely a goal of ours was to keep it as simple as possible.
Amber: What was it like the first time you presented this product to an actual family?
Sam: We worked with an organization called GVC in Lebanon, they’re an Italian NGO, and they were selected as a partner for us by the U.N. because they had previously used another floor product that did not end so well for them. So when our trucks rolled up into their camp the first thing that they did when we started pulling out the floors was smelling our floors.
Scott: It was really bizarre, we had no idea why they were doing that but very universally families would grab a tile and just sniff it. We didn’t know why.
Sam: And it ended up being that their last product was a sort of crumb rubber, glued product and so there was off gassing and it was uncomfortable and they were getting sick and headaches.
Scott: It was ground up tires mixed with glue and then baked so if you can imagine just sleeping next to your car with your nose on your tire.
Amber: All night long.
Scott: So a lot of the families decided it was just better to sleep on the dirt than to sleep next to that.
Amber: Oh wow, especially in an enclosed space.
Scott: Oh yeah it’s awful.
Sam: And it was great, obviously it’s like the exciting event when we show up with a big – they’re all sort of wondering what’s coming – well we had told them the day before. What’s nice about our floor is that everyone can participate. It’s easy enough that kids and anyone can participate. So we would sort of divvy up the floors and we would go shelter to shelter and look at their progress.
These camps are – for me it was socking; living in the West we’re not really prepared for these conditions that we may accept for a couple of days when we’re camping but when you start thinking about them being there for years, when people have been outside for long enough that they don’t swat flies away anymore it’s – you start to notice the little details like that and it’s pretty shocking. So it feels good to not only present something that you think is going to help them but for them to continually give you feedback that it is helping them. It’s something they hang on to and sort of proves that to them it’s valuable.
Scott: 2 years in – we still get reporting’s back and 2 years in the families are still ecstatic about it. We had 4 families move out of the camp and they literally took their floors with them they liked it so much. That’s one of the biggest endorsements we feel like we can get from the end user.
Amber: What is the future after flooring?
Scott: We’re working on a heater and we’re working on a cooling device. Most refugees use diesel or propane heaters in their shelters to stay warm, it’s about $9 a gallon by the time it gets out into the field, and so we’re working on a device that operates on fuel that can be harvested locally in literally any country because there are a lot of refugee crisis around the world. And then a cooling device – we were in Lebanon one June and Ramadan which is a particularly hot, brutal time to be there.
And a lot of the families are fasting and it’s a pretty miserable, dignity-losing situation for a lot of these families to sit in a shelter that’s 120 degrees in there and just kind of endure it. So our passion is not just about life-saving and disease prevention but just giving dignity back to a lot of these families that lost it and they’re going through the hardest times of their lives right now. They’ve often seen loved ones killed in front of them, they’ve lost their homes and they’re enduring pretty terrible conditions and so it’s our passion to find ways to alleviate the suffering and bring dignity back to them.
Amber: Well it’s been a pleasure learning more about Emergency Floor and just the whole story behind it but I really appreciate you joining us today.
Scott: Really grateful to be here.
Sam: Thank you for inviting us.
Amber: Absolutely. Once again this is The BusinessMakers Show, I’m Amber Ambrose and we’ve talking about Emergency Floor today, thanks for joining us.
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