The challenges of post disaster housing in the developed and developing worlds

Whether it’s an earthquake, a hurricane or a flood, when natural disasters hit, they often have catastrophic impacts on people’s lives, both in the developed and developing worlds. Shelter is one of the main issues, with houses made unliveable or sometimes completely destroyed following natural disasters and communities are faced with the huge task of rebuilding. One of the biggest challenges of relief efforts is to construct suitable accommodation to house the victims, either temporarily or into the long-term future, that is sanitary, practical and as comfortable as possible. Enter post disaster housing.

Each disaster has its own difficulties when it comes to housing relief, with the location of the disaster often determining the accessibility of materials and the overall design. While remote regions can be nearly impossible to transport construction materials to, the issue of space limitations in built-up cities are equally as challenging. Here we look at two innovative solutions to post disaster housing in both the developed and developing worlds which have evolved in the fallout from recent natural disasters.

Post disaster apartment pods in New York City

Post disaster housing NYC

Hurricane Sandy hit the United States’ east coast in 2012 with disastrous consequences for many, and after watching the exodus of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina (with few options for residents within the city while their homes were rebuilt), New York’s Mayor Bloomberg knew that he didn’t want the same situation in his city. From the challenges faced in providing post disaster housing, New York City initiated a design competition that specifically focused on this urban environment. Garrison Architects was selected as one of the finalists for its complex of post-disaster stackable apartment pods – an affordable and practical solution for New York City. The pilot project cost $1.7 million dollars, with around 70% of that paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency – an indication of just how committed to post disaster housing New York City is.

The US Government has traditionally used FEMA trailers as post disaster relief housing, but in a city like New York where space is at a premium, these bulky “homes” are just not practical (not to mention their problems with formaldehyde contamination). “Our needs are so different from the rest of the country” says James McConnell, the assistant commissioner for strategic data at the Office of Emergency Management, “so we need temporary housing that is different from the rest of the country.” In streets lined with row houses and apartment blocks, the stackable pods designed by Garrison fit right in. On the exterior they may look somewhat similar to shipping containers, but on the inside these post-disaster housing pods have been carefully designed with stainless-steel appliances, hand-built cabinetry and wheelchair accessible showers, not to mention a private balcony. The design avoids the need for elevators, is fully wheelchair accessible, and complies with New York’s building code.

The idea is that if a natural catastrophe hits New York, these post-disaster housing pods could be setup in expansive parking lots, floated on barges or attached to existing New York City Housing Authority properties. While the pods are still in the prototype phase, they show promising potential for a post-disaster housing system that enables victims to recover in their own neighborhoods and keep their communities alive – something that is so important in the rebuilding phase. The architect who designed the pods, James Garrison, also understood that rarely is post-disaster relief housing just a temporary shelter, which is why he designed something that was built to last, comfortable and practical, because you just never know how long they will need to be in use.

Earthquake resilient bamboo houses in Nepal

Post disaster housing Nepal

The recent earthquake in Nepal hit the headlines and the world responded with an influx of donations and messages of solidarity with the victims. But after the news cameras left, the country was left with a mammoth task to rehouse hundreds of thousands of Nepalese, many of whom were living in remote mountainous regions. It was estimated that more than 700,000 structures needed to be repaired or rebuilt, with around 300,000 left homeless by the earthquake.

But a new initiative by INBAR is taking advantage of Nepal’s abundant bamboo resources to construct post-disaster housing in the communities devastated by the earthquake, while at the same time promoting sustainability. INBAR (the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan) is an intergovernmental organization, established in 1997 for just this purpose and promotes innovative solutions and sustainable development using bamboo and rattan. They’ve been working alongside private sector partners to design modern bamboo building systems that not only meet national building codes and international ISO standards, but can also withstand the impacts of future earthquakes in the region.

Bamboo is affordable, durable and fast growing, making it a suitable renewable resource for building. Bamboo has a higher tensile strength than steel and, compared to concrete, a greater compressive strength. Out of Nepal’s 75 districts, bamboo grows in 73, meaning that it can be sourced locally (reducing the need for imported construction materials) and making it readily available to many of the earthquake-affected communities. The initiative also addresses the need for jobs and opportunities, with locals employed in their own regions to build post-disaster bamboo housing.

One of the real highlights of the project has been the approval of a bamboo constructed school design which will hopefully be rolled out across the country to rebuild around 7000 schools that were destroyed during the earthquake. One of the stakeholders, Dr Madhav Karki, explained just how important this post-disaster housing innovation was, saying “The building of bamboo schools are not only ‘climate-smart’ but also economically viable as it will promote local materials and traditional values, and strengthen the local economy.”

Effective post disaster housing solutions

While each of these approaches to post disaster housing has their own unique challenges and design considerations, the need for easy-to-implement housing within a short space of time serves as the basis for both. The crowded urban design of New York City is a world away from the mountainous rural landscapes of Nepal, but when disasters hit, the need for effective shelter solutions is paramount for all.