In urban areas, natural disasters can be doubly destructive. Not only do earthquakes, flooding, and hurricanes destroy people’s homes, the dense urban fabric offers few sites for temporary housing such as government-supplied trailers for temporary housing, where people could live while their homes are rebuilt.

New York City has begun an experiment to address the housing issue with what they call “Urban Interim Housing,” a concept that aims to house displaced residents in their neighbourhoods, or as close by as possible. Helping residents to stay in their neighbourhoods lets them maintain jobs, friendships and attendance in school and church, for example, while also giving them an opportunity to help to rebuild their neighbourhoods.

New York City’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) worked with the city’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC) to launch a design competition from which the best design elements were drawn to create the Urban Interim Housing Unit Specification.

The specification is a guide for manufacturers when building interim housing units (IHUs) for the program, and requires that all of the built units incorporate universal design principles and comply with the NYC building code and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. The design specification also addresses safety, durability, and environmental quality, but aims to provide flexibility to manufacturers so they can quickly re-tool factories for production.

The OEM and DDC then worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Army Corps of Engineers, American Manufactured Structures & Systems, Garrison Architects, Mark Line Industries and Anastos Engineering Associates to build the prototype following the specification.

The prototype IHU is now complete and was recently assembled on its test site in Brooklyn, New York. The design uses modular units that were constructed off-site and joined on-site. The three-storey prototype includes one three-bedroom unit, a three-bedroom unit, and gallery space where people can learn about the project.

“These prototypes are designed to allow people to stay in their neighborhoods, even when they can’t stay in their homes,” said DDC Commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora.

The OEM and DDC also created a “playbook” which offers a detailed overview of urban interim housing, from the development process to site selection to an “urban design study” that illustrates design options for the interim housing units.

The playbook specifies four sizes of modular pre-fabricated units: three-by-9.1 metres, three-by-12.2 metres, 3.65-by-9.1 metres, and 3.65-by-12.2 metres. They are designed with ingress and egress at both ends, and the site plan shows them stacked up to four units high on the street frontage, and up to three units high on the sides not fronting the street. The units are rapidly deployable and transportable, and can be adapted to any site, so each lot can be used as intensively as possible.

post disaster

Screen capture from the What If New York City post-disaster housing playbook.

While site differences will preclude design consistency, design elements can be applied on a site-by-site basis, where they’re effective and appropriate.

Sketches for the urban design study illustrate elements such as centre courtyards with shared open space, play areas, and community gardens. Ground floor retail space will provide needed goods and services to residents, and also space for businesses that have been displaced. The interim housing units include space for general infrastructure like laundry, storage, bike storage or parking, and car sharing.

Design features such as clearly defined entries with public space help to anchor a building to its neighbourhood and create the impression of a community feature rather than a temporary, low-budget eyesore. Street trees also help to create a more “normal” feeling in the neighbourhood.

The prototype will also function as a “laboratory,” with OEM and City employees occupying the unit for short-term evaluation. Students in the Sustainable Urban Environments Program at Polytechnic Institute of New York University will evaluate living conditions, while students in the Recovery, Adaptation, Mitigation and Planning (RAMP) program at the Pratt School of Architecture will study how multiple prototype units could help to restore a neighbourhood.