NYC tests post-disaster housing in Downtown Brooklyn

Getting ready for the next Superstorm Sandy

April 28, 2014 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Post-disaster housing in Downtown Brooklyn
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New York City is testing an experimental post-disaster housing prototype in Downtown Brooklyn.

If the test is successful, the modular housing could be installed in parking lots, on dead end streets, or on other paved land in neighborhoods hit by a disaster. The idea is to keep residents living as close to home as possible while they recover.

On Saturday, a crew stacked five steel units on top of each other, Lego style, in an empty lot on Cadman Plaza East. By mid-afternoon, the four-bedroom, three story “townhouse” was fully assembled.

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The NYC Office of Emergency Management (OEM) has been working on the project for six years, along with the city’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC), FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

The prototype includes a living area, bedrooms, bathroom, fully-equipped kitchen and storage areas, but the configuration is flexible, said project architect Jim Garrison, a professor at Pratt and principal of Garrison Architects.

The next step, Garrison said, is to connect the prototype to city utilities and then test it out with human guinea pigs.

“The idea is, try it out, solve all the problems, and then you’re ready to build quickly when the time comes,” he told the Brooklyn Eagle.

After a disaster, the modules could be trucked in to create four-story clusters with private yards and public spaces, à la Brownstone Brooklyn.

“When these are built and in place, they’re nearly identical to a brownstone neighborhood,” Garrison said. “They’re taken from a model which I consider to be one of the most successful urban models that we’ve ever in our society created, which are these four story Brooklyn walkup communities.”

The  12’ by 40’ units are a far cry from poorly insulated FEMA trailers, and can fit more people onto the available land. They are cool in the summer and warm in the winter, Garrison said. The balconies keep the sun from shining directly into the interior, and the insulation keeps the heat and AC from escaping.

“You can heat one of these with a 1,500 watt hair dryer,” he said. “If we put photovoltaic arrays on the roofs, and if a person living inside is careful, we can basically take care of all their energy needs.”

The units are also superior to shipping containers, popular at the moment as alternative living and working spaces. “Shipping containers are not really appropriate for housing,” he said. “They don’t insulate, they use too much steel, they’re too small.”

Keeping neighborhoods intact

Spearheaded by Cynthia Barton, Housing Recovery Program Manager at OEM, the post-disaster housing project has been in the works since 2008, when Barton brainstormed the “What If New York City…” design competition.

“This project is about keeping people close to home and keeping New York’s neighborhoods intact,” Barton told the Eagle.

OEM Assistant Commissioner Jim McConnell said this type of housing would speed recovery. “By keeping people in their neighborhood, they can be involved in the rebuilding of their neighborhood and they can stay tied into their support networks — their families, their churches.”

The prototype will be on site for a year or so. “We want to know not only the design and logistics of getting it here, but we want to know what it’s like to live in it,” Barton said. “So we’re partnering with NYU-Poly to do an occupancy study. We’re also looking at what are the best ways to rebuild a neighborhood. We have an urban planning project that we started with City Planning, and we’re continuing it with Pratt’s resiliency program.”

Debra Gans, of Gans Studio, has been working on finding locations to site the units. While the housing will be installed after a disaster has subsided, flooding is still a consideration. “We did a case study about where in Red Hook they might go. Red Hook does have a couple of sites on empty high ground, but we also looked at alternative strategies. For example: IKEA did not flood, because it’s raised up. It’s not just a matter of finding a site that’s at high elevation, it’s also a matter of how you go about building on the sites you have.”

The hardest thing about installing the housing is the foundation, said Nick Peluso, Director of Constructibility at the NYC Department of Design and Construction (DDC). “There are a variety of sites and soil conditions that have to be studied,” he said.

The units were built by American Manufactured Structures and Systems (AMSS) in Virginia and Mark Line Industries of Pennsylvania, and trucked to Brooklyn.

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