Home, Sweet Shipping Container

Too late for Sandy, New York preps industrial chic disaster housing

If another Sandy hits a year or three from now, few New Yorkers should have to call tent cities and high school gymnasiums home.

Instead, they will be living in shipping containers.

For the past five years, the Bloomberg administration has been quietly developing a first-of-its-kind disaster-housing program, creating modular apartments uniquely designed for the challenges of urban living. Carved out of shipping containers, these LEGO-like, stackable apartments offer all the amenities of home. Or more, since they are bigger and brighter than the typical Manhattan studio. It’s the FEMA trailer of the future, built with the Dwell reader in mind.

“It’s nicer than my apartment,” David Burney, commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction, said in a phone interview earlier this month. Along with the city’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and at least a dozen other city, state and federal agencies and private contractors, Burney has been trying to figure out how best to house the tens or even hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who could find themselves without a home following a major disaster.

Like Hurricane Sandy. Initial estimates of those forced into long-term homelessness—from months to years—are 20,000 in the five boroughs alone. Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri told The New York Times that at least 400 homes would have to be demolished along the coast, with 500 more still to be evaluated.

“There’s nobody who wouldn’t like to see a deployable solution available now,” said Lance Jay Brown, an architecture professor at the City University of New York who has been advising the city on its plans. “But nobody has this, nobody. I think the Japanese are working on something, given all they’ve gone through, but I can tell you, New York is really ahead of the curve when it comes to long-term disaster housing.”

When the next storm of the century hits, thousands of shipping-container apartments could begin arriving in the city within days. A playground or a parking lot of at least 10,000 square feet—somewhere accessible, safe and sizable—would serve as the site. The units, stacked four containers high and anywhere from six to 12 units wide, would form neat little apartment blocks.

The leading scheme calls for a 480-square-foot one-bedroom apartment carved out of a 40-foot-long shipping container. Each one would have a window and a door on each end, providing easy egress—the Fire Department insisted on that—as well as ample light.

On one end would be the bedroom, with a bed, dresser, nightstands, probably a lamp or two. On the other end is the living/dining room, with couch, table, maybe an easy chair, and a small kitchen complete with pots, pans, china and flatware. In between is the bathroom, stocked with clean towels, soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste.

“When you’ve lost everything, you need everything, and it’s the little things that count,” said William Begley, the director of Sea Box, a container-modification company based outside of Trenton, N.J. The Bloomberg administration has been working closely with the firm on developing a system, and Sea Box has even created a prototype on its property it hopes the city will use, though no contracts have yet been issued.

“It’s just like moving into an extended-stay hotel, like a Homestead Suites or a StayAmerica,” Begley said.

For larger families, a modified container with two bedrooms and perhaps a second bathroom could be attached. The entire system can run on the grid or off, depending on the circumstances, with power from a generator and an independent septic system.

Nice as the accommodations may be on the inside, the city wants them to be attractive on the outside as well, and is currently considering ways to add some visual flair. There could also be retail and community spaces on the ground floor to help restore both convenience and neighborhood camaraderie. “In order to succeed, these have to be somewhere people actually want to live,” Burney said.

At the same time, the goal is to make the containers as inexpensive as possible, with each module projected to cost between $50,000 and $80,000. As the Bloomberg administration has shown over the past decade, cost-conscious civic infrastructure does not need to be ugly or skimp on design—it’s CB2 meets Motel 6. “Just because it’s prefab doesn’t mean it has to be an eyesore,” Burney said. But they also cannot be so comfortable people will want to move in for good.

The hope is that FEMA would cover most, if not all of the costs, and the agency would also have the units at its disposal across the country, if it chooses. FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers are tentatively onboard.

To test its plan, the city is already preparing to build a 16-unit prototype in the Office of Emergency Management’s backyard, on a plot of land behind headquarters at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Four units wide and four units high, the complex would show that the system is both structurally and socially sound.

It turns out that Hurricane Sandy, the very occasion when these units could have best been put to the test, actually interrupted their development. OEM, having secured $1 million in seed money from City Hall last year, was in the middle of drafting a public request for firms to build a prototype when the superstorm popped up on the radar. All resources have been dedicated to Sandy ever since. Even so, the administration still plans to have a prototype deployed by the second half of next year—and if anything, Sandy has made that goal more urgent, not less.

“It’s not the whole solution to a housing-recovery program, but it’s a piece of it,” OEM Commissioner Joseph Bruno said. “It’s a good piece, too, one of the options that allows you to rebuild in a community that was devastated. You keep people in their neighborhood, and you don’t worry about losing them from your city.”

The ability to stack the units creates a level of density that is inherently, and necessarily, New York. In Galveston, Texas; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; or Wilmington, N.C., FEMA would just roll its trailers into front yards and driveways. In New York, how many people do you know with a front yard?

“We’re not just restoring somebody’s apartment, we’re restoring somebody’s street,” Thaddeus Pawlowski, an urban planner at the Department of City Planning, said during a recent lecture about the city’s disaster housing program at the Center for Architecture. “New Yorkers love their streets. They love their neighborhoods. So it’s very important people feel connected again to their neighborhood.”

Pawlowski was actually delivering his remarks exactly one week before Sandy hit the city. It was the night of Oct. 21, and he, along with some colleagues from OEM and the group Architecture for Humanity, had come to debate the all-too-prescient topic “After Disaster: How Does NYC Plan to Recover?” Less than a week later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg would be standing inside OEM headquarters, imploring nearly 300,000 New Yorkers to evacuate low-lying areas.

“The idea is that by providing temporary long-term housing, we can provide a pathway to the recovery of the neighborhood,” Pawlowski explained to the audience. “Probably the most important thing for a neighborhood to come back is that the people are there to rebuild it.”

Six years ago, Pawlowski helped launch an initiative to find an alternative to FEMA trailers, which weren’t built with New York City’s density in mind. At the time, he was working as a designer at OEM, updating the city’s disaster-response plans, and Hurricane Katrina served as a wake-up call.

The following year, the city held a contest—called What If NYC—for long-term disaster-housing ideas, with an emphasis on 10 criteria. The units must be able to house a high number of people, be rapidly deployable across a range of geographies, and have numerous configurations for different family sizes. They had to be reusable, comfortable, ADA-compliant, secure and both cost- and energy-efficient. And the city wanted something recognizable, to “maximize the ability of New Yorkers to feel a sense of identity and even pride in where they live,” as the competition brief put it. All this from what is basically a glorified mobile home.

“If a storm were to hit, our immediate need for shelter would be met,” Bloomberg said at the time. “The greater challenge is to provide longer-term provisional housing for what could be thousands of displaced families while their communities are rebuilt.”

It is a challenge that got a lot of people thinking. The city received 117 proposals from 52 different countries, providing the city with a wealth of ideas—some practical, some fanciful. Impromptu complexes of honeycomb hexagons, floating villages on piers, barges, even a requisitioned cruise ship. Flat-pack solutions (think an IKEA box) that blossom like an accordion or pop up like Transformers. Giant Erector sets, a few inflatable models like one of those carnival bouncy rides. There was even a fleet of flying dirigibles, each with an apartment inside, that could float above people’s homes. The city selected 10 winners and 10 runners-up in September 2008 that are featured on the website WhatIfNYC.net. It is a blueprint for recovery.

“We hope this will serve as a guide for the best practices, not only for New York but the entire nation, and the world,” Brown, the CUNY professor, said.

After much fanfare around the competition, the project seemed to go dormant, but only because it went underground. Burney explained it was best to work on the project in private, so as not to alarm the public about the possibilities of a disaster, and to have the freedom to let the design develop.

“Because of the broad range of entries, there was a lot of work for the city to do to turn it into something,” said Paul Freitag, a competition juror who is a managing director at the Jonathan Rose Companies, one of the city’s top affordable-housing developers.

After briefly mulling barges, blimps and cruise ships, the city settled on the humble shipping container, which a number of entrants had proposed. “Logistically, it’s not as though you’ve got a bunch of cruise ships lying around that you can requisition,” Burney said. But he did point out that barges are not as ridiculous as they might sound, either. After all, the Department of Corrections operates the gigantic Vernon C. Bain prison barge, moored off Hunts Point in the Bronx, which houses up to 800 prisoners.

“We kept coming back to the shipping containers, because they’re a fairly known quantity in terms of technology and even design,” Burney continued. “It’s rather cool these days to have a house made out of a shipping container.”

In 2009, the city released a request for expressions of interest, to see who might be game to undertake such a project, or even if it was possible. Meanwhile, the agencies went about the regulatory work of getting such a system funded and executed, no easy process given the added layers posed by the Army Corps and FEMA. “We’ve had to submit things two and three times,” Sea Box’s Begley said. “We work with government a lot, so we know what it’s like, and it’s nobody’s fault. You get these commanders who come through for six months, and when they move on, you may have to start again. It’s just how the bureaucracy works.”

On the city side of things, everything had to be debated: Should there be fire sprinklers? Should it be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act? What if it violates the zoning code, with the construction of a building larger than zoning would allow, which seems certain if a five- or six-story building was assembled on a parking lot near the beach in, say, Queens or Staten Island, where zoning calls almost exclusively for low-lying single-family homes.

“There are certain codes for temporary structures, and certain codes for permanent structures, but this is really neither, so what do you do with it?” Burney said. “Exceptions have to be made, and figuring those out with all the agencies takes time.”

Time has even been spent on figuring out if and how to decorate the containers. They could be painted different colors, creating interesting patterns, an inviting kaleidoscope of corrugated steel. Decals or designs could be added to the exteriors, as well, creating makeshift murals. “We want these to be an attractive place to live, to help foster community,” Pawlowski said.

The city has worked closely with Sea Box on the project, but it has not yet given the final go-ahead to the firm’s plan, which would involve producing about 15,000 units, dispersed around the country in clusters of 500 to 1,000 units. The way Sea Box sees it, the units would sit in a lot somewhere until they are needed, be that in New York or Los Angeles or Minneapolis or Sioux Falls, S.D. “An ISO container will last 35 years, and you can reuse it 20 times,” Begley said. “The old FEMA trailers, tie them up for a year or two and they’re through.”

Those 15,000 units would supply the city for a month or two while production ramped up if more were needed—the city expects to work with numerous contractors to produce these units. Following the program, they would be broken down, retrofitted and put back into storage for the next disaster.

While the program has been built with New Yorkers in mind, City Hall believes it could serve as yet another model for cities around the country, just like the smoking ban has. “We’ve created a universal specification of what we believed anyone in the container industry could use,” Bruno said. “It works in New York City, but it could probably work anywhere, so it has national implications.”

If only it had been ready a year ago. “Certainly I would have liked to have seen it happen sooner, but that’s just the process,” Burney said. “As the mayor keeps saying, this isn’t going to be the last storm we see.”