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After a Disaster, Houses That Feel More Like Home

The HELP temporary dwelling erected by architect Carib Daniel Martin and builder Rob Bragan in Bethesda.
The HELP temporary dwelling erected by architect Carib Daniel Martin and builder Rob Bragan in Bethesda. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

The agency's Web site notes that "President Bush is committed to moving all evacuees out of shelters by the middle of October." But FEMA's order for manufactured housing equals the industry's annual production and could take as long to materialize. So the housing gap is being filled with motels, hotels, Army bases, vacant apartments and even cruise ships.

Only the travel trailers speak to the nearly universal desire to return home. Both the HELP module and the Global Village Shelter are small enough to be parked on a corner of one's property while rebuilding, their designers point out.

The HELP shelter is a sturdy, no-frills box of cement board panels, with a rubberized flat roof and plastic composite lumber for a deck. Martin believes it could live on as a garden shed or guest house.

"This is not your standard gabled, vinyl-sided 'house of your dreams,'" he acknowledges. "I am putting it forward as discussion. The key to it is you can get it on your property. You don't lose connection with that thing that is security to you."

Ferrara's shelters are unfurnished shells, which can be recycled after use. He sees them grouped in villages, where larger structures would be set up to provide food and sanitary facilities. But they could be customized for use on individual home sites. They provide privacy and a lockable door.

"If they had set these things up inside the stadium," he suggests, the Superdome might have been a more civilized place.

But that would have taken foresight and a willingness to invest in innovation. Bureaucracies are notoriously risk-averse.

For two decades, Nader Khalili, founder of the California Institute of Earth Art and Architecture in Hesperia, Calif., has promoted "super-adobe" domes as emergency housing. The patented structures require little more than earth, water, cement, sandbags and lengths of barbed wire. Khalili recalled this week that FEMA had commissioned Cal-Earth to supply super-adobe several years ago for a fast, cheap levee at nearby Hesperia Lake. But he has not been able to market his product to the United Nations or, after the Bam earthquake, to his native Iran.

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban has had more success. After the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, he oversaw construction of houses made with paper-tube walls, canvas for roofs and sand-filled plastic crates for foundations. He also built a paper-tube church, which was finally dismantled this summer for transfer to an earthquake memorial in Taiwan. Ban adapted the house design for use after earthquakes in Turkey in 1999 and India in 2001, and he worked briefly with the United Nations, improving the tents delivered to Rwandan refugees. His Paper Log House will be on display beginning Oct. 16 at the Museum of Modern Art's upcoming exhibition "SAFE: Design Takes on Risk."

So will Ferrara's Global Village Shelter. But that's small comfort to the designer.

"One thing that people have to learn about all this disaster relief is you can't wait for the disaster -- you have to stockpile somewhere," he says. "Now, maybe since it's happened in this country, they'll have to plan. It's a mess."

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