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Lightweight Building Unfolds On-site

Exterior view of the building that folds out from the size of a shipping container to 430 sq ft in approximately five minutes
The building folds out from the size of a shipping container to 430 sq ft in approximately five minutes. This version of the invention is permanently mounted on a steel chassis with wheels and a towing hitch. © Vantem Modular LLC

A new composite building that unfolds—expanding by a factor of as much as 6.8—traces its origins to a civil engineer’s experiences as a child in Peru.

May 7, 2013—The lightweight composite folding structures being built at a factory in New Braunfels, Texas, trace their origins decades back to the mountains of Peru. As a young boy growing up there, civil engineer Ramon Kalinowski, CEng, M.ASCE, was keenly aware of the devastating effects of earthquakes and the lingering consequences of being displaced from one’s home.

Later as a young engineer he found himself supervising railroad maintenance crews at high altitudes in the steep, rocky passes of the Andes. One of his responsibilities at that time was to construct camps to shelter the workers.

“Obviously, extreme temperature, lack of water, et cetera made it very difficult to use conventional construction techniques,” says Kalinowski, the president of Vantem Modular, in New Braunfels. “That’s when I thought things should be done like Henry Ford, in a factory.”

Kalinowski’s work has resulted in a lightweight folding building known as SpaceMax. The product comprises a series of composite structural aluminum panels that fold out to form the walls, roof, and floor of a structure. These panels rotate around each other via a proprietary extrusion system. Another proprietary system locks the panels together, providing a connection along the full length of a member. A team of four can deploy the building in about five minutes, Kalinowski says. 

Interior view of foldable building, displaying multi-bunkbeds

The folding structures can be configured to rapidly create a remote
work camp that could take months to build with conventional
construction materials and techniques. © Vantem Modular LLC

Because the units are designed to be highly mobile, the dimensions of a folded SpaceMax are targeted to the dimensions of a shipping container: 8 ft wide, 8.5 ft tall, and 20 ft. long. The most popular unit is of that size, and smaller units can be compounded to equal the shipping container dimensions. When the unit is deployed to a site, the square footage grows by a factor of 3, 4.5, or 6.8, depending on the model.

“That is the beauty,” Kalinowski says with a laugh. “You transport a lot of finished space in a very compact volume. Transporting air is not a very good business to be in. We eliminate the air contained in a modular building.”

The company’s most popular unit, the S1, deploys into a 430 sq ft building that can be configured to include such accommodations as kitchenettes, bathrooms, and offices. Some units have a higher level of compression and unfold to nearly 900 sq ft.

The typical unit weighs less than 5,000 lb and can be either placed on a conventional foundation or founded on spread pads that are included as part of the package. Integral tie-down points provide 10,000 lb of uplift resistance per connecting point when properly tethered to anchors. The structure is designed to withstand winds of 115 mph. The company also offers a steel-chassis-mounted unit capable of being towed by a simple three-quarter-ton pickup truck.

Pricing on the units begins at about $29,000 and goes up depending on options.

“We fit very well into [the] niche where conventional methods have difficulty,” Kalinowski says. “For example, if you need to put a mining camp in Africa for two hundred employees and you are going to build this with conventional methods, it will takes months, if not more than a year, to do it. With our methods, you can put it in [in] less than a week.”

Another interior view of foldable building, this one displays a customized office space

SpaceMax units can readily be customized to include kitchenettes,
bathrooms, or offices. © Vantem Modular LLC

Indeed, the units are light enough that they can be transported to remote sites by helicopter. Recently, units were sent to West, Texas, to aid recovery efforts following the massive explosion at a fertilizer plant that killed 14 people, injured 200, and destroyed 100 homes.

“We see this becoming a remedy to the tremendous need [in an] emergency response,” Kalinowski says. “You can see, sadly, in every disaster around the world how infrastructure plays a critical part in saving lives. As civil engineers we have a duty to explore solutions.”

Kalinowski drew inspiration from sources as disparate as the Model T, the iPhone, instant coffee, and the Citroën for SpaceMax. Although he is pleased with the product, he says he will continue to improve it as technological advances are made in materials.

“What you see is a Model T. Please wait to see the Lincoln Continental,” he says. “This interest [I have] in developing a more practical housing method comes from a young age of my life. I recall as early as when I was six or seven years old, I was dreaming of this. I think it’s an obsession that moved me through the years.”



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