From shanties to shelters, company wants to help

When a natural disaster strikes, finding shelter for those who have lost their homes becomes of principal concern.

Now a new business, Principal Shelter,brings together four friends committed to addressing the problem of thehomeless around the world facing just such a situation.

Douglas Scripture, of Kalamazoo, Nic Lahr, of Grand Haven, and Dale Bash and Chris Vlk, both of Bay City,are creating buildings of galvanized steel that can be shipped abroad and snapped together like pieces of an erector set in remote locations where no power exists.

And even though the buildings snap together they're built to stand up to hurricane force winds.

Manufacturing the shelters is a business the four friends hope will not only benefitthose in the many countries where people live in substandard conditions, but also help build the Michigan economy.

The demand could be huge. Recent estimates say that in Haiti alone after the January earthquake more than 1 million were left homeless  and are still living in camps. Reconstruction efforts are barely under way. And Haiti is just one economically ravaged nation where housing is desperately needed.

"There are so many places in the world in need. The list is virtually endless," says Scripture.

Considering the potential demand among the homeless in Haiti, Jamaica, Kenya and beyond, over the next three to five years, Principal Shelter could manufacture 5,000 to 10,000 of the galvanized steel buildings, says Bash, who heads the company, and also is CEO of Dobson Industrial Inc. in Bay City.

Dobson Industrial Inc., which does business in Southwest Michigan and across the nation, specializes in steel fabrication and erection, machinery moving installation and rigging, specialized transportation, heavy hauling and more. The shelters currently are being manufactured at Ponder Doors, a division of Dobson Industrial Inc.

At the point 10,000 of the buildings are being built each year, the company would be at capacity. If the demand grows beyond that the company would look for another facility where it could expand, says Bash.

Despite the potential, just how great the demand will be is something the company cannot predict. There is some competition in the market -- a lot of media attention recently has gone to turning shipping containers into houses and those reports make it sound likethe empty containers are lying about and can be transformed intohousing for virtually nothing.

You could say, that idea brought Principal Shelter into being. It started with a telephone call from a person required to remain anonymous in the federal government who asked if Dobson Industrial could convert its shipping containers into houses.

They checked out what it would take to make the transformation and ultimately decided that was not the best route to go. That meant forgoing the sure-bet government contract -- it went to a company inTexas instead -- but Principal Shelter is convinced the plan it came up with after 18 months of research and design is superior because the company talked with aid workers on the ground to find out what exactly was needed and incorporated those needs into their shelters.

What they came up with can be constructed by three-man teams in one to two days. The buildings can be built with no power tools, so they can go up in area where the power has been knocked out or power lines do not reach. They can be located on different kinds of terrain, including rocky ones.

The building come in three models, sized to be used either as a house, school or medical clinicand sell for $12,500, $13,500 and $14,500 respectively. The larger models have more interior walls.

Their snap-together design makes them very flexible. Two can be put together for a double-wide unit. In countries that require less living space perfamily, the units can be smaller. For example, the basic residential shelter is 40 feet by 8 feet for Haiti and 20 by 8 feet for Jamaica, where people live in smaller spaces.

They ship with all the fasteners, hand tools and caulk needed for construction. Instructions also are included.

The buildings can be transported without the use of motor vehicles. Using eight poles installed in specially designed holes, they can be carried from place to place literally using man-power.

The flooring has been treated to resist insects and windows come with metal security screens. Each building has six windows, providing light and ventilation.

Three wind-powered roof vents keep the living space cool as does the three inches of high-quality insulation.

Their price puts them in themid-range compared to some competitors, but Bash points out the lesser-priced competitors' houses cannot be built in remote areas where thereis no power and those cheaper dwellings are temporary solutions notbuilt to last as the Principal Shelter unit is.

And for those enamored of the shipping container turned into houses, Bash says those containers lying about are not free -- they belong to someone. It also is not easy to cut windows and doors into the hardened steel ofshipping containers and it's difficult to keep those houses cool and comfortable.

Three of the shelters are now standing in WahooBay, Haiti. Getting them up was something of a learning process as the company dealt with the frustration of shipping the buildings only to find they would not be allowed into the country. Ultimately, the matter was resolved and in early October the buildings went up.

Early reaction has been "more than positive," says Scripture, who helps with the sales and marketing arm of the company.

For Principal Shelter's buildings to serve as many people as need them it will take the interest of a number of foundations and nonprofits that have housing the homeless as their mission. To that end, Scripture says they have contacted 175 such entities seeking support.

In the end, what drives four successful business men to take on such aproject?

Scripture says it's simple. "If we're not going to do something to make a difference, then what are wedoing?"

Kathy Jennings edits Southwest Michigan's Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor living in Kalamazoo.

Photos by Erik Holladay and Mike Randolph

Doug Scripture, member of Principal Shelter. (photo by Erik Holladay)

Project manager Roger Bacon, right, and Christopher Vlk, stand inside a model shelter on the site of Ponder Industrial Inc. in Bay City. (photo by Mike Randolph)

The walls of the shelter are made of a sandwich of aluminum and polystyrene. (photo by Mike Randolph )

Shelters being constructed in Haiti.

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