What is completely constructed of steel, reinforced with corrugated steel walls, able to withstand winds up to 140 mph, and can make a comfortable living space for the survivors of the Haitian earthquake? A standard shipping container. And researchers at Clemson University are scurrying to figure out how to turn their project, known as SEED, into a way to contribute emergency housing to Haiti right now.
SEED was initially conceived as a way to utilize some of the estimated 30 million shipping containers that were languishing in ports all over the world by turning them into homes for victims of hurricanes in both the Caribbean Islands and the United States.
A research and development team led by Pernille Christensen, associate professor Doug Hecker, and assistant professor Martha Skinner, received an Environmental Protection Agency P3 grant and funding by Container-It of Atlanta, Sargent Metals of Anderson, and the Intermodal Steel Building Units Association. A model container will be part of the 2010 National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C., in April and a prototype was to be built in the Caribbean in the next year.
Then disaster struck. "This situation [in Haiti] which is so sad is forcing all of us to be quicker to implement something of great need while people are ready to help," says Skinner adding, "this is something that will help a lot of places, and a lot of people."
Hecker notes that despite being originally earmarked for hurricanes, the containers' "unibody" construction "are also very good in seismic zones and exceed structural code in the United States and any country in the world."
Creating a Home from SEED
The way he describes it, the container is simply cut in a few strategic places to allow for airflow and light while it is still in the port, then transported to the site for further modifications such as a coated with ceramic paint for insulation and fitted with wooden shipping pallets that act as "pods" for bathing and cooking.
Christensen explains that at 320 square feet, the containers are roughly equivalent to what many islanders are used to. "Extended families of 6 to 12 people often live in 200-to-400-square-foot spaces," she says.
Additionally, the containers are augmented with another surplus item: 55 gallon drums fitted with an interior slip to protect against leaching. On the roof of the container they become the real "seeds" of the project" filled with dirt and planted for "emergency food restoration." Christensen says other surplus items such as old tires can also be made into raised beds for growing food.
She says the ability to restore people to homes in their neighborhoods that they can be proud of—brightly painted, secure, and sustainable- strengthen communities. The fears raised by the toxicity of the trailers FEMA provided to the victims of Hurricane Katrina would not be a factor. It would also cut down on looting.
Growing a SEED Home
But even Skinner admits that logistically, getting these homes to Haitians is going to be a complex task.
The main port in Haiti, in Port-au-Prince sustained considerable damage according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Port cranes may be submerged in the water, cargo containers have been tossed on their sides, and an oil spill—possibly caused by a broken pipeline—has fouled the harbor's waters, according to the Miami Herald. However, a Reuters report on January 18 said the U.S. military planned to have the port opened in 2-3 days. The accompanying photo illustrates the damage, but you can also see a good quantity of containers stacked by the shore.
This is exactly what the SEED team believes could be the beginning of hope for displaced Haitians.
Skinner says, "We are working to get shipping companies on board to donate their empty containers already in Haiti, and governments that have sent containers with goods for the relief effort and neighboring ports could also donate." She says the are also looking for a company to donate or set up the equipment needed to modify the containers at the port.
"We will probably put a team together but we need help," underscores Skinner. "It is a huge, but could also be a simple task, if all entities get coordinated."
Follow Lydia Dishman on Twitter