‘Housing is a core item’

The availability of temporary housing is frequently a problem after disasters strike.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BALTIMORE | May 17, 2005



"This is very inviting to me, and to the recovery community as I see it – but it’s still too expensive for most of us."

—Bob Tribble


The availability of temporary housing is frequently a problem after disasters strike. Students and professors at one university program are trying a plan that could help.

The Market Oriented Wood Technology Program at the National Resources Research Institute (NRRI) of the University of Minnesota-Duluth is promoting its Rapid Response Housing as a possible solution to the temporary housing problems plaguing some disaster zones.

The creators of the Rapid Response Housing describe it as “an easy-to-ship, self-contained 8’ x 20’ container unit that partially disassembles and reassembles into a 20’ x 24’ complete stand-alone house in approximately four hours.”

“Our home assembles and reassembles kind of like a big piece of furniture,” said Pat Donahue, program director and principle investigator of the program. “It’s a good concept where all the component parts are inside the box, and it can be built with hand labor and some light mechanical assistance.”

The unit becomes a home with two bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, and living area. The electrical and plumbing systems are included in the unit as well.

Donahue has been in the automated house industry since the late 1990s. More recently, he had been reading about war and disasters and wondered how it all could relate. He saw a connection in that housing is one of the most basic necessities for everyone.

“Housing is a core item,” he explained. “Having a nice warm home for kids to live in is pretty important.”

Seeing the aftermath of the Dec. 26 tsunami only further inspired him and the program to find parties interested in the Rapid Response Housing idea.

The project has been in the works for 18 months, and Donahue said he is currently gauging interest from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as well as other state and local emergency management agencies.

After reading about the idea, Lutheran Disaster Response of Georgia’s Bob Tribble said the concept is a good one. “I’m glad (they’re) trying to develop better housing that would help us more,” said Tribble. “This is very inviting to me, and to the recovery community as I see it – but it’s still too expensive for most of us.”

Donahue admitted that the price is still high at this point, hovering between $50 and $65 per square foot for the 480 square foot units. “But I want to be an engineer first and price it high,” he explained. “I think I can drive that price down.”

Numerous other companies and organizations are currently helping the program further develop the idea, helping to work out logistical and design issues. Donahue said he wants the concept to include logistical plans as well, adding that his overall idea includes strategically-located factories around the country that could be ready at a moment’s notice to manufacture the units and ship them out.

The easy transportation of the units is another factor that Tribble finds very useful. “I like that you can put two of these units on a 40-foot flatbed truck,” he said. “Plus they’d be easy to store – they’d take up much less room than a FEMA trailer.”

Tribble is referring to the travel trailers FEMA provides to many disaster survivors whose homes are damaged or destroyed. He said an idea like the Rapid Response Housing would also be very useful in areas that did not receive federal disaster declarations and therefore are not eligible for the FEMA trailers.

Obvious concerns remain, both for Donahue and for disaster responders who might be interested in the Rapid Response Housing. Don Jones, disaster response coordinator for Southwest Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, is curious to see if the housing units could stand up to the various weather patterns and problems across the country.

Jones also wonders if the homes can just survive the general logistical issues surrounding necessities like heat, air conditioning, and gas and electric power wherever they might be constructed.

“They look like a good concept, I just think ‘we’ as a Disaster Community would need to approach their use realistically and not ‘sell them’ as something they are not,” said Jones.

Donahue said the price for the units might also vary depending on the weather of the unit’s final destination. “These can be pretty much used anywhere in the world – I’m not saying it will work in every state and in every situation – but maybe in 40 states without modification,” he explained. “We really designed it thinking about high wind events, like what Florida deals with. We considered that an important feature.”

As for the unit’s build time – it depends on the build site as well. Donahue noted that a unit could easily be set up within a day at a site with RV hook-ups and a slab.

To really market test the units, Donahue is shopping for an investor willing to order 50 as a pilot program. “Until you do that, you really don’t know all the details,” he said. So far he’s garnered interest from several Minnesota investors who would help transport and distribute the homes to tsunami survivors in Southeast Asia – as well as help those countries manufacture their own units with sustainable materials available over there.

But for now, the concept is one that has some disaster relief organizations happy that someone is looking at the long-standing problem of temporary housing.

“It is an issue that absolutely needs looked at,” said Tribble.


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