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Shipping Containers for Post-Disaster Relief Housing


They’re built to withstand everything from raging typhoons in the Pacific to careless crane operators in Beijing. Yet can the humble shipping container really be the answer to post-disaster relief housing in New York City? Turns out, this might not be as far-flung as it sounds…here’s how.

In the wake of hurricane Sandy, and with thousands of residents still homeless, New York officials realized the need for space efficient, easily transportable structures that could house stranded residents for the extended time periods required to rebuild their neighborhoods.

Don’t call them disaster dorms. (Jeff Shumaker/DCP)

Besides having a history of problems like formaldehyde contamination, the traditional FEMA trailers are ill suited for a dense urban environment like New York. With the need to house thousands of families after a disaster – as indeed happened after Hurricane Sandy – there is hardly room for a huge trailer park. What’s more, is New Yorkers really like their neighborhoods, they don’t want to relocate miles away for months, possibly years on end.

To solve the problem, the city started a design competition titled WhatIfNewYork. It was a challenge that got a lot of people thinking. The city received 117 proposals from 52 different countries, providing the city with a wealth of ideas—some practical, some fanciful. Impromptu complexes of honeycomb hexagons, floating villages on piers, barges, even a requisitioned cruise ship. Flat-pack solutions (think an IKEA box) that blossom like an accordion or pop up like Transformers. Giant Erector sets, a few inflatable models like one of those carnival bouncy rides. There was even a fleet of flying dirigibles, each with an apartment inside, that could float above people’s homes.

The outcome? A 40-square foot one-bedroom apartment carved out of a 40-foot long shipping container; complete with stainless-steel appliances, cabinetry hand-built by Amish artisans, a shower flush with the floor –both sleek and accessible. “It’s the FEMA trailer of the future, with the Dwell reader in mind”

Able to reach four stories, the design of the units avoids the need for elevators and complies with the city’s building code. The units also incorporate universal design, with wide passages, tables and countertops that can accommodate wheelchairs, even in bathrooms.

When the next storm of the century hits, thousands of shipping container apartments could begin arriving in the city within days. A playground or a parking lot at least 10,000 square feet, somewhat accessible, safe and sizable – would serve as the site. The units, stacked four containers high and anywhere from six to twelve wide, would form neat little apartment blocks.

The Sleek, Modern Interior

“Almost everyone tells us these are nicer than their own apartments,” James McConnell, the assistant commissioner for strategic data at the city’s Office of Emergency Management, said during a tour. That includes a reporter, who had the fortune of spending the night by choice, rather than necessity. When the next “big one” hits, thousands could find themselves relying on these pods – and they may find they prefer them to home.

2 thoughts on “Shipping Containers for Post-Disaster Relief Housing

  1. I would like to purchase a reasonably priced shipping container house to place on my property. Please provide a price listing.

  2. Were these new or used containers? From all the information I have read, nearly all “used” containers and possibly new as well have chemically treated flooring to keep the bugs out. This seems to be the biggest stumbling block when deciding to use a container to live in. Even if the flooring is bamboo or even metal, you still don’t know if toxins are present after the container has been in service for a period of time. Perhaps replacement of the flooring in addition to steam cleaning the interior walls would make it safe?

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