Urgent Architecture
40 Sustainable Housing Solutions
For a Changing World

Bridgette Meinhold
(W. W. Norton)
If you were to send me a disaster tomorrow, the last possible thing I would do is to call up those ninnies at FEMA. As they proved to us in 2005, when the world is falling apart what you don't need is some flake from the National Guard with a .45 on his hip and a federal enabling order in his hands sending in the troops to make ruinous life-threatening orders dictated from a presidential jet that tells him that those starving to death or burning with thirst are to be labeled looters and held back with all the firepower that the Feds with the cooperation of the local police can come up with.

In their way of thinking, those breaking into the stores are only looking for television sets and booze, so we send in the troops to offer to kill those who are merely seeking something basic as food or water for their starving children. As one of my friends who was caught up in the disaster immediately after Katrina said: you break down the door of the local 7-11 to find something to eat, then the police come in to either shoot you or herd you off to some cow place prison to keep you 'under control.'

As one eyewitness reported, "In many cases, what was called 'looting' could be alternatively defined as "appropriation of essential supplies by survivors who had received no assistance from the government."

After Katrina, there was the immediate issue of housing. FEMA sent in 70,000 trailers for families to live in, but if they had only gone though this handy list of structures available in Urgent Architecture they would have found housing that could be ordered right now for a tiny percentage of the final cost. At $2500, the HabiHut is a plastic shelter that installs in less than an hour. It is a three-sided pyramid, manufactured in Bozeman, Montana ... almost twelve feet tall at the inside apex with a single door and operable windows. "HabiHut's hexagonal footprint allows multiple units to be joined together to create larger structures as needed. The shape also creates a spacious interior and multipurpose areas with a single room."

From Austin, we have the Reaction Housing, which was built to the following parameters:

    Create a shelter that can be quickly deployed, easily assembled with no tools, big enough to house a lot of people, modular in design, reusable, and relatively inexpensive.

The designer, Michael McDaniel, said his inspiration was the coffee cup --- stackable, insulated, sturdy, and easily transported." Indeed, one photograph [Fig. 3] shows dozens of these stacked one inside the other, on the docks, ready to be shipped where ever in the world they may be needed.

Harry Skinner of Bellingham Washington designed a cheap set of interlocking fiberglass forms that are tough and reusable. They consist of "four equal sections that are eight feet tall with a radius of about five feet. Each section weights sixty pounds, and the four sections can easily be maneuvered and assembled in less than half an hour by a single adult. Flanges on the edges of each section interlock with those on the neighboring sections and when set into place, they simply snap together." Approximate cost: $1,200.

My personal favorite is "The Shelter Box." A British non-profit organisation has come up with "a small portable house, complete in emergency response boxes to provide the initial supplies, including shelters, basic tools, cooking apparatuses, and water filters." From their experience in the floods and mudslides in Sao Jose do Vale do Rio Preto during the flood catastrophe of 2011, 10,000 of these boxes would have given 10,000 families the survival system to maintain until the infrastructure could be put into place. The cost: $1000 a unit. Time to build the survival units --- a matter of hours. Size of the whole in a suitcase: about as much as that guy in the seat behind you is trying to squash into the overhead bin while you cringe in your place hoping he is strong enough not to drop the whole mess and bonk you on the cupola.

The most logical and simple: "Seed." "Architecture and design students at Clemson University designed and built a prototype disaster-relief housing system from the Caribbean regions out of an ISO (International Organization for Standardization) shipping container." It was estimated that hundreds of thousands of empty shipping containers were lying unused in shipping yards in New Orleans in August of 2005, and with a few simple maneuvers, could have been converted into viable housing, transitional homes "which could eventually be adapted into permanent housing."

The class named them "SEEDs" because they could so easily be modified and turned into homes. "Without modification, a 40-foot shipping container can carry upward of 60,000 pounds and resist being overturned in 140 mph winds." A 40 x 8 foot container makes an immediately available home of about 304 square feet.

    During the 2009 spring semester, the students built a full-scale model of their shelter design on Clemson's campus to test out their theories. A container was shipped to campus and placed upon a stilt foundation with stairs leading down to the ground. Next, the walls were cut to create a foldout patio, a window with a raised shade, and gill-like slits to encourage the flow of breezes through the container. Brightly colored paint brought the container to life, and basic plywood furniture made it more like a home. Without insulation, containers can heat up quickly in the sun, so the students installed a roof canopy made out of laser-cut steel; it not only provides shade but also allows air to move across the container to keep it cool.

Urgent Architecture shows forty different ways of quick housing, but the most lovable and gorgeous are old and much beloved yurts. "Traditional yurts have been around for more than 2,000 years, have evolved to accommodate the lives of nomadic people, and are still in use all over Central Asia." Genghis Khan, who roamed all over those parts raping and pillaging, did it with troops wheeling their yurts behind them, probably the earliest version of the Airstream trailer [see Fig. 2].

Half of the population of Mongolia still lives in yurts, in an alpine environment complete with snow and ice. They are represented here by, if you will pardon the expression, Groovyyurts. Groovy buys these structures in Mongolia and sends them by truck and ship to the United States. They cost between $5,000 and $12,000, and they are gorgeous, and the next time I come across $10,000 in spare change I am ordering up one to put together in my backyard where up to this time we've only sported pickleweed, skunkweed, skunks, jackrabbits and my nightshirts and undies exposed to all the neighbors, drying there on the line between the sturdy neem and the water-hogging ficus. They are exquisite.

--- C. A. Amantea
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