Rethinking Emergency Housing

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast, flooding roughly 80% of the city of New Orleans, claiming more than 1,500 lives, and causing close to $100 billion in damages, according to the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

More than a year later, thousands of New Orleans residents are still displaced, and new controversies have erupted over the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) awarding of temporary housing contracts. According to The Washington Post, FEMA has contracted to pay as much as $7 billion for 150,000 trailers, or $46,000 per trailer, 26,000 of which are unusable under the agency’s own guidelines. Thousands of residents still haven’t been able to return to New Orleans, much less their old neighborhoods or homes, a situation that has further slowed rebuilding efforts.

The lessons to be learned from this still-unfolding tragedy are numerous. Obviously, plans for emergency housing must be an integral part of any plan for emergency response. Another, more-subtle lesson is this: Communities recover better from disasters when they’re allowed to recover as communities.

A group of architects from StudioRED, a component of the architecture firm Hord Coplan Macht, are reimagining the concept of emergency housing. The plan they’ve come up with, which they call denCITY, challenges conventional wisdom not only on emergency planning, but also on how to live in the twentyfirst century.

“All this started when I volunteered with the Red Cross in September 2005,” says David Lopez, one of the Hord Coplan Macht architects. “I was stationed near the Slidell [Louisiana] area for two weeks, giving people disbursement funds for immediate assistance, food, etc. I came to see how desperate the situation really was. When my two weeks were over, I brought those personal stories of tragedy and struggle back with me.”

The objective of the denCITY plan is to allow residents to move into emergency housing located in their actual neighborhood within six to eight months after a disaster. Once back, the residents can then assist in the rebuilding of their own homes and communities, allowing for much faster reconstruction. The denCITY model is a steel superstructure, resembling a stack of giant shelves. Individual pods, or “dens,” produced off-site can then be inserted into the structure. In tightly packed urban areas, the model would allow displaced people to stay closer to where they actually lived rather than in distant trailer parks-the current FEMA solution.

“As you can see in the illustration, some of the spots [within the structure] are empty and others are filled. There’s a porous quality to the building, which is, for me, a dynamic expression of things always changing,” says Lopez. “Our goal was to create something that was the opposite of the FEMA solution. We wanted to use modular housing technologies to quickly build homes, health care, and education facilities, which are things that tend to be forgotten when a disaster hits. There was one working hospital in New Orleans six months after the hurricane, along with two MASH tents. Only one of the 99 public schools was open in the city, according to what I heard. These are devastating numbers. The city couldn’t function as a city.”

Modular technologies allow the pods to be designed and built relatively quickly away from the disaster area and then shipped in once construction of the superstructure is complete. The pods can be manufactured to specification.

“We tried to rethink mixed-use space, because people who have been displaced have different needs,” says architect Kuo Pao Lian. “So instead of mixing residential with, say, retail, we mixed it with educational and health-care facilities. The actual modules would be created off-site but tailored to the immediate health, education, and residential needs of that community.”

For instance, in a community with a large number of children, modules could be designated as pediatric clinics or classrooms. That, in turn, would allow displaced children to continue their studies alongside their friends and classmates while their parents worked to rebuild the community.

The architects at StudioRED concede that denCITY is a short-term solution to the long-term problems facing New Orleans, problems that include the city’s decades-old infrastructure and its location-beneath sea level and framed by water. However, they believe the future of New Orleans is incredibly bright, so long as the city is able to reimagine itself as part of its environment.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, November-December 2006.

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