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

It turns out that Hurricane Sandy, the very occasion when these units could have best been put to the test,

The Sea Box prototype, hoping for the city’s approval. (Sea Box)

It turns out that Hurricane Sandy, the very occasion when these units could have best been put to the test, actually interrupted their development. OEM, having secured $1 million in seed money from City Hall last year, was in the middle of drafting a public request for firms to build a prototype when the superstorm popped up on the radar. All resources have been dedicated to Sandy ever since. Even so, the administration still plans to have a prototype deployed by the second half of next year—and if anything, Sandy has made that goal more urgent, not less.

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“It’s not the whole solution to a housing recovery program, but it’s a piece of it,” said OEM Commissioner Joseph Bruno. “It’s a good piece, too, one of the options that allows you to rebuild in a community that was devastated. You keep people in their neighborhood, and you don’t worry about losing them from your city.”

The ability to stack the units creates a level of density that is inherently, and necessarily, New York. In Galveston, Fort Lauderdale or Wilmington, FEMA would just roll its trailers into front yards and driveways. In New York, how many people do you know with a front yard?

“We’re not just restoring somebody’s apartment, we’re restoring somebody’s street,” Thaddeus Pawlowski, an urban planner at the Department of City Planning, said during a recent lecture about the city’s disaster housing program at the Center for Architecture. “New Yorkers love their streets. They love their neighborhoods. So it’s very important people feel connected again to their neighborhood.”

Mr. Pawlowski was actually delivering his remarks exactly one week before Hurricane Sandy hit the city. It was the night of Sunday, Oct. 21, and he, along with some colleagues from OEM and the group Architecture for Humanity, had come to debate the all-too-prescient topic “After Disaster: How Does NYC Plan to Recover?” Less than a week later, Mayor Bloomberg would be standing inside OEM headquarters, imploring nearly 300,000 New Yorkers to evacuate low-lying areas.

“The idea is that by providing temporary long-term housing, we can provide a pathway to the recovery of the neighborhood,” Mr. Pawlowski explained to the audience. “Probably the most important thing for a neighborhood to come back is that the people are there to rebuild it.”

Six years ago, Mr. Pawlowski helped launch an initiative to find an alternative to FEMA trailers, which weren’t built with New York City’s density in mind. At the time, he was working as a designer at OEM, updating the city’s disaster response plans, and Hurricane Katrina served as a wakeup call.

The following year, the city held a contest—called What If NYC—for long-term disaster housing ideas, with an emphasis on 10 criteria. The units must be able to house a high number of people, be rapidly deployable across a range of geographies, and have numerous configurations for different family sizes. They had to be reusable, comfortable, ADA-compliant, secure, and both cost- and energy-efficient. And the city wanted something recognizable, to “maximize the ability of New Yorkers to feel a sense of identity and even pride in where they live,” as the competition brief put it. All this from what is basically a glorified mobile home.

“If a storm were to hit, our immediate need for shelter would be met,” Mayor Bloomberg said at the time. “The greater challenge is to provide longer-term provisional housing for what could be thousands of displaced families while their communities are rebuilt.”

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