Jesuit alums reinvent the tent

• Fiberglass emergency shelters will sell for $25,000

Scappoose businessmen and longtime pals Brad Wallingford and Fritz Johnson believe they have invented a new-and-improved emergency shelter that could save lives and relieve the suffering of war refugees and disaster victims.

Sounds great. Now all the intrepid entrepreneurs have to do is convince some government or relief agency to buy the shelters at a cool $25,000 apiece.

'The governmental agencies we spoke to never said the cost is a problem,' said Wallingford, a partner with Johnson in Genuine Composites Inc., a company they formed in 1996.

'Everyone we've shown it to has realized what a valuable entity this could be,' said Johnson, who provided seed money for the project and, with Wallingford, is financing the venture.

'What you've got to have is a lobbyist to be there in (Washington) D.C. for you. We're just a couple of guys on a mountain in Scappoose.'

With the help of two to three employees, the partners have spent the last three years and a considerable sum of money (they won't say how much) to build a prototype.

Floating the ARC

Called an ARC, for 'arched rigid composite,' the shelter is an arc-shaped structure assembled from interlocking panels made with fiberglass reinforced plastic, the same durable material used in boats, motor homes and corrosion-free water tanks and pipes, among other things.

The shelter can be assembled in a couple of hours, sort of like an adult version of a Lego set. Yet it is sturdy enough, its inventors say, to withstand any kind of weather, from severe windstorms to blinding blizzards to unbearable heat.

Because of the panels, it can be built to any length, Wallingford said. Their 18-by-20 prototype provides about 360 square feet of floor space.

The two men say the shelter has a plethora of potential uses, such as a place to sleep, an emergency hospital, a communications center or a storage facility.

'I'm thinking of everything, from victims of floods to refugees in Afghanistan to research in the Arctic,' Johnson said.

'We're reinventing the tent,' Wallingford said. 'Our shelter has properties a tent just can't provide. There are hard-shelled shelter systems, but none break down into small pieces like ours does.'

For the past month, Wallingford and Johnson have been showing the shelter in a Northwest Portland warehouse to visitors.

Over the next year, they will spend their time marketing the structure, including an appearance in June at an 'aid and trade' show in New York City. They already have talked with U.S. Army officials, the United Nations and UNICEF.

All have expressed interest Ñ but no one has yet agreed to buy.

The Los Alamos project

Wallingford and Johnson, friends since they attended Jesuit High School in the 1960s, have reason to believe that defense agencies eventually will be interested Ñ and not just because their invention is versatile, easy to assemble, should last 20 years or more and can be transported easily.

They have a track record. In 1998, they completed a project for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, building a 'special weapons platform' out of the same fiberglass composite they used to build the shelter.

The platform is a sophisticated, high-tech 'cabinet' that carries a portable X-ray machine used by the military in weapons recovery missions.

Wallingford and Johnson declined to build any other platforms for the lab, though they do have contracts with the Los Alamos facility for smaller-scale projects. They are making fiberglass containers for linear accelerators.

'The platform was a one-time deal,' Wallingford said. 'We have to move on. Our focus now is these shelter systems.'

They would not say how much they have been paid by the Los Alamos lab, but Wallingford said they used profits from those projects to help finance the shelter.

To build it, they drew on their extensive experience constructing boats and custom yachts. Wallingford spent 28 years in the boat-building business after graduating from Jesuit in 1967 and doing a stint in the Army.

The fiberglass link

Johnson, a 1966 Jesuit graduate, worked in various family enterprises, including real estate investments and construction, and gained boat-building experience working on and racing custom yachts.

That's how they became familiar with the composite fiberglass material they used to build the weapons platform and the shelter.

'We learned if it can stand up to the ocean, it can stand up to anything,' Johnson said.

Johnson and Wallingford have lined up a manufacturer Ñ a North Kingsville, Ohio, company called Premix Ñ to mass-produce the shelters.

Though they are hoping they can 'presell' some of them over the next year, they acknowledge that they might have to seek some venture capital.

Johnson said: 'I think it's worthwhile. I think it will save enough lives that it's worth me spending everything I have and Brad spending everything he has and a lot of people putting in a lot of resources to bring it to fruition. This is a humanitarian endeavor.'

Then, after a moment, he said with a laugh, 'It better be!'

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