Out of every great disaster comes some lessons we take into the future, if we’re smart. Hurricane Katrina is still teaching us lessons about disaster prevention and recovery. One notable area is the lessons we’ve learned about housing.
Many will remember the notorious “FEMA trailers” that were given to many displaced residents of the Gulf Coast who needed temporary shelter after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The problem was that the trailers, which cost about $65,000 each, were plagued with formaldehyde pollution, making them hazardous to live in. (A class action lawsuit over the toxic effects of formaldehyde in the trailers has just this week been settled.) Once the residents moved on, the unloved, temporary trailers became an enormous disposal problem. The trailers are now readily available on eBay for under $5,000.
This has inspired several architects and designers to come up with ideas for small — often, tiny — houses that can be put up in a hurry, are way more comfortable than tents, and ideally can be incorporated into more permanent structures rather than leaving a graveyard of useless trailers.
One of the first was Katrina Cottages, conceived by Andrés Duany in the aftermath of the destruction following the failure of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After proving that these charming cottages could go up fast for far less than a FEMA trailer, and provide great value for endless years to come, the house plans are available to anyone – not just someone recovering from a disaster, but those who want a tiny vacation cottage, a guest quarters in the back yard, and offsite office, or temporary housing for workers. The buildings contain bathrooms and full kitchens. Think of the advantage to a neighborhood if the residents are able to live in a snug but attractive 500 to 700-square foot cottage on their own property while sorting out how to repair their main house. How much better is it for families to be reconstituted in their neighborhoods, with supporting relationships intact, rather than warehoused in temporary trailer camps!
Habitat for Humanity attracts some of the most shelter-savvy minds in the world to solve problems of homelessness. After a major earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, Habitat designed a “core house,” a structure that meets basic needs and offers a core onto which future expansion can be built. Some have complained about the lack of attention to aesthetics in these houses, but I believe that the residents themselves, always resourceful and creative, will remedy this problem in short order. As the houses in the planned community of Levittown, Pennsylvania, once all identical, are now sprouting trees, shutters, lawn ornaments, stone pathways, and ponds to make each one distinctive, so, too, will the Haitian villages use local materials and human ingenuity to personalize, beautify, and enlarge the buildings.
One of the newer designs to enter the emergency response field is called the Exo Reaction Housing Solution. Reaction is an alternative to tents or cots lined up in stadiums. The pre-fab units sleep four people, with sanitary facilities housed in a nearby building. They are reusable, so far greener than the FEMA trailer-type solution, and they can be moved to the site of a large-scale disaster faster and more cheaply than the trailers. Michael McDaniel, the designer of the Reaction shelter, recently gave a talk at a TEDxAustin conference describing the process of creating and producing this product.
It’s never pleasant to contemplate losing our home in a disaster, but it happens to 30 to 40 million people every year. It’s worth considering what we’ve learned about how to respond to our homeless neighbors with a solution that is cheap, non-toxic, reusable, and that supports the neighborhoods that sustain us all. No more trailers!