Melbourne startup creates compact shelters to help house people affected by natural disasters

- May 11, 2015 3 MIN READ

One of the most difficult parts of dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster is finding and providing durable shelter for large numbers of people who have lost their homes. A Melbourne entrepreneur has come up with a possible solution.

Alastair Pryor, who studied business at Swinburne University, came up with the idea for a compact aid shelter while working part time as a scaffolder.

“I felt sorry for a homeless man who had to endure the cold winter months of Melbourne with basically no protection. I initially thought of creating a collapsible shelter for the homeless that they could take from place to place with ease, made of properties that were extremely durable and lightweight,” Pryor said.

The shelters, which cost US$180 each, weigh 15 kilograms and can be folded to carry. They can also be extended to house multiple people.

While Australia has often been criticised for the lack of support and funding given to social enterprises, Pryor secured a seed investment of $150,000 within two months of coming up with the idea from the shelters, finding investors through LinkedIn.

“I grew a lot of networks on LinkedIn, especially when I was younger when a lot of people weren’t on it, or not recognising how resourceful it was. I did all my lead generation through there,” he said.

He then approached a variety of Melbourne architects and interior designers to develop the concept, eventually partnering with Charlwood Design.

“We used a UV-stabilised polypropylene, a durable, weather resistant, and thermally insulated material. We then had to pass rigorous testing standards, which are set by various aid relief organisations and soon found that the pop up dwelling proved to be suitable in even the most extreme weather conditions,” Pryor said.

“We also designed the shelter to include various manually-operated air vents so that as cool air enters through the shelter’s base, warm air is expelled, further adapting the shelter for all types of climates.”

It was also through his LinkedIn networks that Pryor then connected with Oxfam, applying for a grant scheme that was looking to develop a latrine shelter. He now helps the organisation source shelters.

So given that there are many stages of rebuilding after a disaster, where does the compact shelter fit in? Pryor explained that in a situation where a natural disaster has occurred, such as the Nepal earthquake, the compact shelters would be sent at the two to three-month mark, when temporary housing structures can be set up.

“In terms of layout of aid relief and providing shelter, the development of shelter goes from a tent to a marquee. There’s a market we found that’s between a marquee and transitional shelter that is basically a dwelling which has hard walls, which is our shelter,” he said.

Though Pryor originally came up with the idea for the shelters as a response, or solution to, homelessness, aid relief seems like a better fit for the product. At US$180 each, it would be hard to provide large numbers of homeless people with such shelters, while the question of where they could be set up is also key.

Pryor has taken the idea of the compact and lightweight to a new product. He has started a subsidiary company, The Social Vessel, which has created a collapsible ‘vessel’ that can hold up to 5 or 6 litres of liquid. As well as targeting the camping and outdoor market, the product will be aimed at music festival-goers.

“We’re also looking at social enterprise – we’ve teamed up with a Melbourne charity called Anonymous X, where with every purchase we’ll be supplying a vessel to them to give to the homeless,” Pryor said.

Pryor was recently named the winner of the Innovation award in the Victorian Young Achiever Awards. He hopes to leverage the recognition received from the award into funding for The Social Vessel.