7 Inspiring Solutions For Disaster Relief Housing

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By Melissa Dalton / Published by Dwell
Inspired by a builder's response to the devastating wildfires across California, we're taking a look at seven recent designs for disaster relief housing from architects around the world.

After watching the news coverage of the devastating wildfires in California, which have burned over 245,000 acres to claim 43 lives and 8,900 structures, Charlie McEvoy and his wife, Andrea, discussed what they would do if they ever lost their home. McEvoy said that, being the owner of a construction company, he would rebuild. They decided to do just that, initiating an effort to construct and donate two tiny homes for displaced neighbors in their Sonoma County community. (Check out their GoFundMe campaign here.)

In light of the rising threat of natural disasters, we're taking a look at designs for disaster relief housing from architects around the world. Whether they're prefab, tiny, or temporary, we're uplifted by how design professionals are combining modern technology and old-fashioned imagination to build a more resilient response.

1. Shigeru Ban Architects

7 Inspiring Solutions For Disaster Relief Housing - Photo 1 of 26 - In 2013, Ban’s office introduced its new housing prototype, the New Temporary House, whose exterior is made of insulated sandwich panels and fiber- reinforced plastic.

In 2013, Ban’s office introduced its new housing prototype, the New Temporary House, whose exterior is made of insulated sandwich panels and fiber- reinforced plastic.

In 2014, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban won the Pritzker Architecture Prize and was commended for his approach to disaster relief architecture. According to the New York Times, the jury said: "His buildings provide shelter, community centers and spiritual places for those who have suffered tremendous loss and destruction."

Ban is known for incorporating transient materials, such as cardboard tubes and beer crates, into his designs. "The materials are, in a sense, immaterial," writes Patrick Sisson for DwellBut "it’s the speed at which Ban recognized people’s relationship to structures, and the elegance of the solution," that resonates most. 

The above New Temporary House was designed as a low-cost housing initiative that can be transported and easily built by unskilled workers in affected areas. It utilizes insulated sandwich panels and fiber-reinforced plastic in the exterior.   

2. Ablenook

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The Ablenook is the brain-child of Sean Verdecia and Jason Ross, who designed it in response to Hurricane Katrina. The pair is based out of a studio in Tampa, Florida, and with the Ablenook, they sought to create a prefabricated dwelling that "snaps together," and can be easily transported and assembled on uneven terrain. "Kind of like if Tesla and Lego had a baby," writes Verdecia in an email to Dwell.

The Ablenook's lightweight, aircraft-grade aluminum structural framing is combined with SIPs (structural insulated panels) for the floors, walls and ceiling, and it arrives to the site flat-packed, meaning more units can be delivered at once. It can be assembled in under two hours without tools, tied into standard utilities or set up off-grid, and taken apart and rebuilt for repeated use. Verdecia and Ross hope to make the Ablenook market-ready around March 2018.

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The Hex House is a prototype from Architects for Society, a US-based non-profit coalition of architects from the Middle East, India, Europe, Canada, and the U.S. They collaborated with the Chalmers University in Gothenberg, Sweden, to conceive a rapidly-deployable shelter for Syrian refugees in Alzaatari Camp in Jordan. The Hex House is composed of a galvanized tube steel base and SIPs for walls, floor, and roof. A 431-square-foot unit accommodates two private bedrooms, bathroom, and kitchen/living space. 

The Hex House is customizable, with base interior finishes that include gypsum walls, bamboo plank floors, ceramic tile bathroom floors, bamboo kitchen cabinets, and solid-surface kitchen counters. Units can stand alone, or be combined for larger dwellings or communal clusters, and be occupied for 15-20 years. Units also come with rainwater harvesting systems, passive cooling, and optional roof solar panel placement. (Watch a time lapse video of the assembly of a Hex House at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum here.) 

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These Self-Sustained Modules were developed as a multipurpose, flexible solution to "problems of temporary housing" from Cannatà and Fernandes Architects in Portugal. The unit measures three meters wide by nine meters long for a total area of 27 square meters with a layout that includes a W.C. and small kitchen. Photovoltaic panels, a 500-liter water tank, and a vacuum system help to deliver self-sufficiency. 

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The Just A Minute shelter from Italian firm Barberio Colella was designed in response to the 2015 earthquake in Nepal. As such, the architects sought to utilize local Nepalese materials to fashion a house that can be "built quickly, lightweight and compact to transport, durable, and economic." The shelter combines an OSB central core with a deployable bamboo structure covered by recycled wool insulation and an exterior membrane of double white Juta. Atop that is a waterproof membrane to further protect the structure from the elements. Energy self-sufficiency becomes possible with the addition of solar and photovoltaic panels to the roof.

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7 Inspiring Solutions For Disaster Relief Housing - Photo 18 of 26 - Plans for three-bedroom units designed by Garrison Architects to facilitate families displaced by a man-made or natural disaster. The units will be tested in Brooklyn and designed with environmental and insulation system modifications to fit any urban city in the country.

Plans for three-bedroom units designed by Garrison Architects to facilitate families displaced by a man-made or natural disaster. The units will be tested in Brooklyn and designed with environmental and insulation system modifications to fit any urban city in the country.

In 2014, Garrison Architects developed this Emergency Prototype for the NYC Office of Emergency Management after Superstorm Sandy. The design is a prefab, multi-story, multi-family unit that can be erected in 15 hours. According to the architects, "the models are infinitely flexible," and use recyclable materials, cork floors, zero formaldehyde, a double-insulated shell, and floor-to-ceiling balcony entry doors with integrated shading to lower solar-heat gain. Interior layouts accommodate one-bedroom to three-bedroom configurations.

7 Inspiring Solutions For Disaster Relief Housing - Photo 19 of 26 - The Disaster Housing Prototype is conditioned with a volume of electric, efficient heat comps, run without fossil fuels, electricity-generating photovoltaics, and comes close to being completely net-zero.

The Disaster Housing Prototype is conditioned with a volume of electric, efficient heat comps, run without fossil fuels, electricity-generating photovoltaics, and comes close to being completely net-zero.

7 Inspiring Solutions For Disaster Relief Housing - Photo 20 of 26 - To make the design universal, the first thing the architects did was to "make a unit that a wheelchair bound person can use completely. The kitchen, the bath, the bedroom are all accessible, the way the living and kitchen are arranged, a small communal table, built-in storage, and a small terrace to keep the living room open and provide an outdoor extenuation and privacy," says principal James Garrison. "It's better designed and more comfortable than typically in New York!"

To make the design universal, the first thing the architects did was to "make a unit that a wheelchair bound person can use completely. The kitchen, the bath, the bedroom are all accessible, the way the living and kitchen are arranged, a small communal table, built-in storage, and a small terrace to keep the living room open and provide an outdoor extenuation and privacy," says principal James Garrison. "It's better designed and more comfortable than typically in New York!"

7 Inspiring Solutions For Disaster Relief Housing - Photo 21 of 26 - "It was erected in one and a half days; the modulars went up in one day, the stairs went up the next," Garrison says. The construction process can be viewed in a video on Garrison's blog.

"It was erected in one and a half days; the modulars went up in one day, the stairs went up the next," Garrison says. The construction process can be viewed in a video on Garrison's blog.

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Carter Williamson Architects designed the GRID shelter, so-named for the Norse goddess of peace, in response to the 2004 tsunami in Banda Aceh. Their model utilizes a "prefabricated Ikea approach" for its construction and its interior finishes can be customized (with birch plywood shown here). 

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The 37.5 square meter shelter can be built in one day, house up to 10 people, and includes an interior mezzanine level for privacy. There are two external perforated metal decks, one for hosting a composting toilet and shower system, the other for gas cooking bottles, which help to "maintain hygiene and to isolate these activities from living and sleeping areas." 

Additionally, the GRID is easily transportable, with support columns that can be adjusted for different terrain conditions. Photovoltaic cells and a roof-mounted solar hot water system provide efficient energy and water collection is possible via rainwater tanks. 

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