After a Disaster, Houses That Feel More Like Home

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 1, 2005

One of the first architect-designed emergency shelters of the post-Katrina era, if not the only one, was built not on the Gulf Coast but in Bethesda.

The HELP house -- the acronym stands for Housing Every Last Person -- is more than a tent but less than a home. The basic structure, which measures 8 by 12 feet, includes a kitchenette, bathroom and sleeping space for three. Solar power, a gravity-fed water supply and a composting toilet would make it self-sufficient. Units can be combined, moved and reused.

Architect Carib Daniel Martin and builder Rob Bragan conceived and erected the full-size model over Labor Day weekend with an outlay of $8,000 and labor provided by neighborhood kids. With so many people left homeless, Martin says, designing a low-cost, environmentally sensitive refuge seemed like a constructive thing to do. But without a manufacturer, his driveway on Wilson Lane is as far as the HELP project will go.

Dan Ferrara, a product designer in Morris, Conn., watched the post-hurricane disaster unfold with extreme frustration. Over the past four years, he and his daughter Mia have worked with the Weyerhaeuser Co. to develop a temporary dwelling for just such a disaster. Their Global Village Shelter is made of recycled cardboard treated with fire retardant and laminated for water resistance. Essentially a cube with a peaked roof, it measures slightly more than eight feet on a side. Two people can set one up in 15 minutes without tools, Ferrara says. The cost is $500.

A preproduction run of several hundred shelters was donated and shipped just weeks ago to Grenada, which suffered damage from an earlier hurricane. Ferrara, who normally designs sophisticated products such as air traffic control hardware and power tools, says he was hoping to give back by helping people in the Third World.

But it galls him that he's been unable to help after a hurricane devastated parts of his own country. It wouldn't be hard to crank out 5,000 Global Village Shelters in two days, he says, but calls to the Federal Emergency Management Agency have led nowhere.

"There is no process," Ferrara says. "You just can't talk to anybody. It's like a closed club."

FEMA spokesman Butch Kinerney responds that "there are a thousand people with a thousand ideas to make things better," but the middle of a disaster is the wrong time to pitch a new product. In any case, would-be suppliers are selected from a National Emergency Resource Registry.

The HELP house and Global Village Shelter are the latest in a distinguished line of ideas from designers. They stand as eloquent protests against the global status quo, but they have rarely reached the displaced people who might benefit.

Relief is complex, costly and unpredictable, but designers are right to focus attention on transitional dwellings. In the immediacy of disaster, the United Nations favors canvas tents and plastic sheeting, which are easy to stockpile and cheap to airlift virtually anywhere.

Rich countries don't do tent cities. FEMA relies on manufactured housing, perhaps to a fault. The agency has bought or ordered more than 115,000 mobile homes, RVs and trailers costing $10,000 to $20,000 each.

FEMA appears undeterred by criticism over the vast encampments of single-wides inflicted on Florida after Hurricane Andrew passed through in 1992. Kinerney said the agency had recently placed an order for 50,000 Airstreams, the "silver palace" of travel trailers, and 1,000 so-called park homes, which he said reminded him of the Works Progress Administration houses in the movie version of "The Grapes of Wrath."

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."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company