Viraline's Rapidly Deployable Inflatable Containers won an Honorable Mention in the 2009 P/A Awards.
Credit: Viraline Viraline's Rapidly Deployable Inflatable Containers won an Honorable Mention in the 2009 P/A Awards.
Viraline renderings showing RDIC elevations.
Credit: Viraline Viraline renderings showing RDIC elevations.

With countless households still displaced in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, developing models for post-disaster housing has taken on a new sense of urgency. However, New York City officials have been studying solutions for several years, and this research will soon culminate in the creation of a prototype for temporary housing—a model that could potentially be deployed to dense urban areas across the country. As NYC Department of Design and Construction (DDC) Commissioner David Burney, FAIA, points out, “one of the take-aways from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was that people want to stay very close to their original neighborhood,” and if not afforded that opportunity, they’re often unable to return later. Yet providing temporary housing within an urban block proves more complicated than simply plunking down a FEMA trailer.

In 2008, with the intention of seeking urban alternatives to the trailer, NYC’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) sponsored [with financial support from The Rockefeller Foundation and consultation and outreach from Architecture for Humanity-New York (AFHny)] a competition titled "What if New York City..." and 117 architects, engineers, and designers from around the world submitted their visions. The competition entries exhibited a range of architectural approaches—including accordion-like technology, flat-pack systems, tensile and fabric structures, as well as more adventurous concepts involving floating dirigibles or repurposed cruise ships. From these entries, the jury selected 10 honorable mentions and 10 unranked winners, who were each provided a $10,000 stipend to explore their designs more deeply.

A common thread among winning entries was using steel shipping containers or similar modules as a basic building block. For example, the entry titled Rapidly Deployable Inflatable Containers (RDIC) by Viraline Architecture borrowed the modular, stackable concept from shipping containers but proposed constructing new boxes with fabric expanders, allowing them to compress for transport and inflate once they arrive onsite. Like other winning entries, the RDIC garnered positive comments form the jury (and later won an Honorable Mention in the 2009 P/A Awards), but “we pretty much heard nothing from that point on, once we turned everything in,” reports James Vira, AIA, partner at Viraline.

While the competition brief never made any concrete promises to winners, it stated “one or more winners may be selected for prototype construction.” Rather than proceed with prototyping winner’s designs, the city opted instead to explore possibilities with their in-house architectural and engineering staff.

Over the past couple of years, the DDC has developed a 30-page performance specification and an urban design playbook, which considers potential site issues and how to cultivate a sense of community—if only temporarily—by configuring units to preserve green space in between. The DDC has met with the Department of Buildings (DOB) to iron out code issues for this unique typology, including how to ensure ADA access, meet foundation requirements and provide power off-the-grid. Though these specifications don’t call out any particular construction type, the shipping container “seemed like one of the more practical solutions in terms of deliverability,” said Burney, noting that the stackable and flexible units are readily available in nearby New Jersey. Another benefit of using containers is that they can be deconstructed, stored, and reused when the next disaster strikes.

Recently, the city partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA to develop a request for proposals (RFP), which will be released as early as January 2013, seeking firms that are capable of building units to meet the performance specifications and volume required by the city following another potential disaster on the scale of Sandy. By spring, the city plans to select a winner and build a 16-unit prototype—stacked four units long by four units high—on a lot adjacent to the OEM’s Brooklyn headquarters. The city is in talks with volunteers to live in the units for up to a year, and “that will be our proof of concept,” says Burney, who believes this post-disaster prototype could have implications far beyond the NYC area. “There is a keen interest by FEMA and the Army Corps, because this would be a solution that would apply, if successful, not only to New York, but any dense city that wanted to quickly deliver transitional housing,” he explains.

The city has made significant progress towards solving the pressing issue of post-disaster housing. But did they miss an opportunity by not developing winning designs from the “What if...” competition—especially considering the destruction of Sandy?

"We took ideas from almost every one of the designs that came to us,” says OEM Commissioner Joseph F. Bruno, who served as a juror for the “What if...” competition. He points out that the city is less concerned with aesthetics than practical applications: “We’re more interested in how it runs and works.” Competition winners were required to enter into an agreement with the city that split ownership of copyrights and patents to drawings and other materials created. But Bruno insists the agreement doesn’t prevent designers from recycling their ideas. “They certainly have the right to reuse them, and many of them will,” he says. “I think we’ll see people pop up back up when this RFP comes out."

Vira, who emphasizes that he has no regrets from entering the competition, still wishes the city had followed through with hosting a public exhibition of the winning designs, as originally discussed. Ultimately, the designs were only posted to an online gallery. “The ideas are not useless to us, and it’s been great for me from a professional standpoint,” Vira says. “There’s the other side that wishes they had taken some of these ideas—mine, or any of the others."