Home, Sweet Shipping Container: NYC’s Secret Plans for the Perfect Disaster Apartments

If another Sandy hits a year or three from now, few New Yorkers should have to call tent cities and

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

If another Sandy hits a year or three from now, few New Yorkers should have to call tent cities and high school gymnasiums home.

Instead, they will be living inside shipping containers.

For the past five years, the Bloomberg administration has been quietly developing a first-of-its-kind disaster housing program, creating modular apartments uniquely designed for the challenges of urban living. Carved out of shipping containers, these LEGO-like, stackable apartments offer all the amenities of home. Or more, since they are bigger, and brighter, than the typical Manhattan studio. It’s the FEMA trailer of the future, built with the Dwell reader in mind.

“It’s nicer than my apartment,” David Burney, commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction, said in a phone interview last week. Along with the city’s Office of Emergency Management and at least a dozen other city, state and federal agencies and private contractors, Mr. Burney has been trying to figure out how best to house the tens or even hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who could find themselves without a home following a major disaster.

Slideshow: Inside the city’s secret disaster apartments. >>

Like Hurricane Sandy. Initial estimates of those forced into long-term homelessness—from months to years—are 20,000 in the five boroughs alone. Over the weekend, Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri told the Times that at least 400 homes would have to be demolished along the coast, with 500 more still to be evaluated.

“There’s nobody who wouldn’t like to see a deployable solution available now,” said Lance Jay Brown, an architecture professor at CUNY who has been advising the city on its plans. “But nobody has this, nobody. I think the Japanese are working on something, given all they’ve gone through, but I can tell you, New York is really ahead of the curve when it comes to long-term disaster housing.”

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 of at least 10,000 square feet—somewhere accessible, safe and sizable—would serve as the site. The units, stacked four containers high and anywhere from six to 12 units wide, would form neat little apartment blocks.

The leading scheme calls for a 480-square-foot one-bedroom apartment carved out of a 40-foot-long shipping container. Each one would have a window and a door on each end, providing easy egress—the Fire Department insisted on that—as well as ample light.

On one end would be the bedroom, with a bed, dresser, nightstands, probably a lamp or two. On the other end is the living-dining room, with couch, table, maybe an easy chair, and a small kitchen complete with pots, pans, china and flatware. In between is the bathroom, stocked with clean towels, soap, toothbrushes, even toothpaste.

“When you’ve lost everything, you need everything, and it’s the little things that count,” said William Begley, the director of Sea Box, a container-modification company based outside of Trenton, N.J. The Bloomberg administration has been working closely with the firm on developing a system, and Sea Box has even created a prototype on its property it hopes the city will use, though no contracts have yet been issued.

“It’s just like moving into an extended-stay hotel, like a Homestead Suites or a StayAmerica,” Mr. Begley said.

For larger families, a modified container with two bedrooms and perhaps a second bathroom could be attached. The entire system can run on the grid or off, depending on the circumstances, with power from a generator and an independent septic system.

Nice as the accommodations may be on the inside, the city wants them to be attractive on the outside as well, and is currently considering ways to add some visual flair. There could also be retail and community spaces on the ground floor to help restore both convenience and neighborhood camaraderie. “In order to succeed, these have to be somewhere people actually want to live,” Mr. Burney said.

At the same time, the goal is to make the containers as inexpensive as possible, with each module projected to cost between $50,000 and $80,000. As the Bloomberg administration has shown over the past decade, cost-conscious civic infrastructure does not need to be ugly or skimp on design—it’s CB2 meets Motel 6. “Just because it’s prefab doesn’t mean it has to be an eyesore,” Mr. Burney said. But they also cannot be so comfortable people will want to move in for good.

The hope is that FEMA would cover most, if not all of the costs, and the agency would also have the units at its disposal across the country, if it chooses. FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers are tentatively onboard.

To test its plan, the city is already preparing to build a 16-unit prototype in OEM’s backyard, on a plot of land behind headquarters at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Four units wide and four units high, the complex would show that the system is both structurally and socially sound.

Home, Sweet Shipping Container: NYC’s Secret Plans for the Perfect Disaster Apartments