The United Nations recently reported that almost 60 million refugees have fled their homes in response to conflict or natural disaster. Rice School of Architecture graduate alumni Sam Brisendine (’14) and Scott Key (’15) are working to address the difficult living conditions refugees face. Brisendine and Key have designed a product called Emergency Floor, which allows refugee camp residents to live on an elevated floor. 

Brisendine and Key are the co-founders of the company Good Works Studio. By utilizing wooden pallets (initially used for food transportation) and plastic covering slides, the floor they designed offers a cost-effective and innovative solution to keep refugees from living off of the ground — protecting them from flooding waters, disease-infested dirt and cold temperatures.

Good Works Studio and Emergency Floor have gained national recognition, being featured in publications such as Huffington Post, Forbes, ArchDaily and DesignBoom.

Upon designing Emergency Floor, the duo launched Good Works Studio Inc. through OwlSpark, a program that assists the Rice community with their business startups.

A crowdsourced funding campaign this summer on IndieGoGo raised over $52,000. The campaign’s success allowed Good Works to receive a grant from the United States Agency for International Development. Brisendine said pilot tests take up the majority of the company’s funds.  

The first pilot conducted for Emergency Floor was installed in an uninhabited area of Sweden; after this preliminary pilot, the floor was cleared for inhabited areas. The next pilot will be domestically in Montana, which according to Brisendine, was selected because it can mirror a winter temperature similar to that which many refugee camps face abroad. 

“We wanted somewhere with a pronounced winter temperature,” Key said. “In colder climates, which happen to be where a lot of recent refugees are gathering, we believe our floors can have the greatest impact on health, not only physiological, but psychological as well.”

According to Brisendine, the story of a certain Afghan refugee camp, which faced a combination of rainstorms and harsh temperatures, inspired the team to further pursue cold climate regions.

“It froze [one] night, and a lot of people’s shelters flooded — they got wet, their stuff got wet,” Brisendine said. “A lot of people froze to death. There’s nowhere to go. It’s hard for us to imagine not having options and then just suffering at the level and not having somewhere to turn to. So, that was very motivating and definitely why we’ve targeted cold climates.” 

Key said that there is data supporting benefits of living on a clean floor rather than a dirt floor, but not on the benefits of a floor, from a thermal perspective, in a cold climate setting.

“From the reporting that we read and news stories we consume, that seems to be really what’s plaguing a lot of these refugee camps — especially the combination of wet and cold,” Key said.

According to Key, multiple pilots are also needed in order to collect data; pilots comprise of a conduction of pre- and post-installation surveys that report many variables, including overall user experience.

“[We’re] really looking for changes in people’s health, their behavior — self-reported of course,” Brisendine said. “[We’re] looking for their feedback — how was it to install, how did this improve your life.”

According to Brisendine, the results of the surveys allow the team to make improvements on their product. 

“Hopefully it’s going to put our product to the test [and] see where it fails,” Brisendine said. “[And] how we can best improve our product, maybe install it in a different way, or try new techniques to extend the life of the floor.”

The next product from Good Works Studio will be a floor design similar to Emergency Floor, but designed for a more permanent solution. According to Key, refugees’ provisions in camps are not sustainable. He said the average duration of stay for a refugee in a refugee camp is 17 years.

“They’re given shelters that are replaced one or more times a year — that kind of gives you an idea of the denial in terms of goods that are given over to refugees,” Brisendine said. “They don’t really acknowledge it being a permanent situation.”

Brisendine said many countries will not admit their country’s situation is not a temporary one. This presents a challenge for Good Works Studio’s new and more permanent design.

“Refugees’ host countries oftentimes have rules about how permanent dwellings can be, so our other flooring system, in some context, could be viewed as too permanent while in others, permanence is the goal,” Key said.

 Good Works Studio’s second product is hoped to be piloted in Ghana, summer 2016.

“[We are] hoping the new product finds its way into more permanent dwellings that don’t have concrete floors — that’s a huge issue that’s out there and we think we have a clever solution for it,” Brisendine said.