A Prefab Prototype for Disaster-Relief Housing
By Tim Hanrahan / Published by Dwell

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy rocked the New York City metropolitan area and amongst its damaging effects, displaced over 3,000 people from their homes. But for years even before the storm hit, NYC's Office of Emergency Management (OEM) have discussed solutions for interim housing after a natural disaster. Now it may just have one.

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. Photo courtesy Garrison Architects.

Enter Garrison Architects. OEM tasked the firm with creating a disaster-relief housing prototype. Principal James Garrison sought to address how to "build housing quickly after a disaster, and build housing in the neighborhoods that the affected people are from." Garrison's prefabricated multi-family, high-density mini urban neighborhoods not only cut the build process in half, but are also sustainably built to fit any urban area, not just New York City. The 12-feet by 40-feet modular units are built with completely recyclable materials, cork floors, zero formaldehyde, a double-insulated shell, and floor-to-ceiling balcony entry doors for sun shading.

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!" Photo courtesy Garrison Architects.

Best of all, Garrison intends the temporary housing to become more than just temporary. The prototype is planned to accommodate the handicapped with easy accessibility, open living areas, small private terraces, and even an additional window that typical NYC apartment living does not feature. "The idea is to simplify the process, make it sustainable, and ultimately make it more affordable," says Garrison. Perhaps these ready, factory-made houses can not only be a go-to solution after a natural disaster, but also help growing urban areas around the country with their housing shortage problems.

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. Photo courtesy Garrison Architects.

There are 8 apartments per stairway, 25% of which are handicap accessible, "more than typically provided in urban culture", says Garrison. Gardens, bike racks, and ample walkways in front and behind the housing create easy resident accessibility and an instant coziness for evacuees. Photo courtesy Garrison Architects.

"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. Photo by Josef Samuel.

The prefabrication process cuts a typical 18-month build in half as Garrison prepares the modulars in the factory. Utilities like the plumbing and HVAC systems are also completed in the factory. Photo by Josef Samuel.

Tim Hanrahan


Tim Hanrahan is from Chicago and an architecture graduate of the University of Minnesota with a minor in environmental design. In addition to architecture, he has a knowledge of the hip hop culture as the Co-Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Gowhere Hip Hop.

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