How Tiny and Prefab Homes Can Help People Recover After Natural Disasters

How Tiny and Prefab Homes Can Help People Recover After Natural Disasters

By Kate Reggev
Now that we're seeing how natural disasters are becoming more and more common—from forest fires to floods and hurricanes—we’ve started to wonder, how can prefab and tiny homes play a part in rebuilding efforts? Where do affected communities go from there?

Despite their humble size, both prefab and tiny homes have the potential to play a tremendous role in providing necessary support and temporary—or even permanent—housing during the critical period after a natural disaster. This is due to a wide range of factors: their small size, their short construction timelines, their rigorous construction that can withstand road travel and crane installation (and therefore also resistance to future natural disasters), and their often local design and manufacturing. 

A small home in Australia is elevated to provide protection against potential flooding from the riverbank.

Although government-issued mobile homes and trailers are frequently used in local communities after floods, hurricanes, or wildfires, they typically lack the long-term durability and aesthetics of a more permanent home, and therefore are specifically intended to be just temporary housing. While the ideal situation for many is to return to their original home after completing required repairs and inspections, this is sadly not always possible. In these cases, a newly constructed home is a viable solution, but time and resources can be scarce, and the need immediate. Enter: tiny and prefabricated homes that have been specially designed for future natural disasters. 

This prototype of a prefabricated home rests on oversized flood-rated pylons and was designed by Missouri-based architect Rocio Romero.

Prefabricated homes present a feasible alternative to temporary housing for several reasons. 

Their rapid construction timeline, thanks to their predetermined parts, means that they can be put together in a matter of weeks, rather than months (which it takes to build a traditional home). This shortened schedule can have immeasurable effects on residents, from fewer days of missed school or work to the psychological relief of knowing that safety and shelter are available. What’s more, the modular components of the home also make it more cost-effective than custom-built new construction. 

Vipp, a Danish industrial design company known for its iconic trash cans and all-black kitchens, has also ventured into designing prefabricated homes, including this 592-square-foot prefab unit called Shelter.

The rapid construction of prefabricated homes is due to the fact that they arrive on-site with the majority of their construction components in place.

Usually, resilient prefabricated homes possess several different qualities that make them resilient to disasters.

They’re structurally symmetrical (so that loads like wind and precipitation can be evenly distributed), made of durable materials, lightweight (and never top-heavy), able to withstand strong winds and vibrations of the earth, bendable (to a degree) without collapsing, and designed to be sited on soil that will provide a stable foundation. 

Precast-concrete elements of this prefab home, including the stairs, foundation, and front porch, are examples of durable and reliable hurricane-resistant structural solutions for areas that are prone to flooding and strong winds.

As one of 150 prefab houses in New Orleans designed by architecture firm KieranTimberlake, the home is storm-resistant, affordable, and sustainable. Plus, it seeks to represent the traditional architecture of the area in a modern way.

Of course, these qualities are emphasized or added to, depending on the probable local disaster. 

For example, in prefabricated homes designed for wildfire-prone areas, materials should also be fire-retardant and water-resistant, so structural and exterior elements like columns and beams should be built out of steel and/or concrete rather than wood. In areas prone to earthquakes, single-story prefabs are the safest option, and structural connections need to be reinforced.

Similar characteristics can be found when using tiny homes as disaster relief housing. 

Tiny homes are usually defined as a structure under 500 square feet and typically aren't built as prefabricated elements. Unlike temporary housing, they’re built to last as long as traditional homes using common building techniques and materials, and exhibit aesthetic qualities that are similar to larger homes. 

Swedish architect Jonas Wagell designed a roughly 160-square-foot prefabricated cabin that was built in collaboration with Swedish manufacturer Sommarnöjen. The tiny cabins are delivered flat-packed.

Like their disaster-resilient prefab counterpart, resilient tiny homes have been designed with similar structural and material features in order to address potential threats. Furthermore, while their parts aren't always prefabricated for quick construction and low cost, their small size means they're potentially within the budget of someone receiving disaster relief funding, and can be constructed significantly faster than a traditional home. 

Exterior cladding, like corrugated metal, can provide better resistance against the elements than other materials like wood shingles.

Another major advantage of a tiny home in the face of future disasters is the ability of many of them to be easily moved during evacuations, or disassembled and relocated if necessary. 

In areas that are particularly prone to flooding or frequent evacuation, the ability to leave an area safely and maintain one’s own home is paramount.

New Frontier Tiny Homes's Alpha Tiny Home is the company’s flagship model.

Ultimately, both tiny homes and modular, prefabricated residences offer the safety of newly constructed, disaster-conscious spaces that are likely more cost-effective and energy-efficient than making major repairs on an existing home or purchasing an entirely new residence. Resilient tiny and prefab homes have been designed with three major hazards in mind: wind, flood, and fire—and we just may start seeing more of them in the future.

Elements like a concrete foundation can make a tiny home structurally stable and ready for variable weather, while a front porch creates an inviting entry.


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