New modular disaster relief housing prototype developed in New York : TreeHugger

Hurricane Sandy hit almost two years ago, but it is still a powerful memory for New Yorkers. As of January this year 1,300 families were still living in temporary housing provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

With the threat of hurricanes looming every year, disaster relief housing has become an important consideration across the United States and cities are looking for the most effective systems. Often, shipping containers have been repurposed as emergency housing, but a new modular housing unit prototype designed by James Garrison and his firm, Garrison Architects, may be a better long-term strategy.

The question of shipping containers versus modular housing, a type of prefabricated home, is a subject that TreeHugger has explored before. Containers are readily available in their most rudimentary form all around the world, but modular houses are designed for human rather than material use. Garrison said it is this human element that makes modular housing better, “Once you start doing certain kinds of things to shipping containers that they’re not really meant to do, from a structural or environmental standpoint, they no longer really serve that expedient purpose that they were chosen for in the first place.”

Garrison’s prototype is equipped with a kitchen, storage area, bathroom and living area, and can come in 1 or 3 bedroom configurations – perfect for families. It includes ventilation systems that are extremely energy efficient and which delay the need for air conditioning during New York summers. The structure is made from recyclable materials and, unlike the FEMA trailers after Hurricane Katrina, contains no formaldehyde in its wood work.

© Andrew Rugge/archphoto

The prototype can also be a self-sufficient unit, which Garrison said is an important consideration during crises when utilities have been damaged. He added that even in times of no crisis, this could be useful. “The whole problem with contemporary utilities is you turn on the water, you turn on the electricity, and it’s just there and you don’t give it a second thought. If they’re self-sufficient, then they’re capable of making a dispersed, individualized utility system where we can take responsibility for our waste streams.”

Working with the New York City Office of Emergency Management, the planning and building time has been reduced from 2-3 years, to 4 to 6 months. Ready-made modular housing units can be deployed and installed within 15 hours. The city is working on identifying sites where these modular houses could be placed if disaster were to strike again.

In defense of shipping containers, Peter DeMaria, founder of DeMaria Design Associates said, “Utilizing containers won’t ever become more popular until architects understand how to detail and humanize the containers as proportionate and aesthetically pleasing components of a much larger design palette – therein lies the greatest design challenge for the containers. Concurrently, it’s easy to become fascinated and enamored with the eye-candy of “hip and cool” container designs but ultimately, the design solutions are all about people. We should never lose sight of this – the containers are a means to an ends.”

Garrison does not discount the value of shipping containers. He and his firm are currently working on container-based housing in Tanzania, but he really sees this as an immediate rather than long term, community based solution. He added that shipping containers are ideal in parts of the world where materials and trade craft are not easily accessible.

“There’s this sort of practical, immediate, inexpensive advantage of using a shipping container in the most dire circumstances, versus the longer term needs of a population,” said Garrison.

© Andrew Rugge/archphoto

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