This Is Where People Will Live The Next Time A Natural Disaster Hits New York

Refugees lived in hotels for months after Hurricane Sandy. Next time, this new modular housing unit could be constructed a mere 15 hours after disaster strikes.

This Is Where People Will Live The Next Time A Natural Disaster Hits New York
[Photos by © Andrew Rugge, Archphoto]

Despite rolling out one of the earliest and most ambitious climate plans in the country, New York City was not prepared for Hurricane Sandy. Six months after the storm, hundreds of refugees were still holed up in New York City hotels with nowhere to go.


A new set of modular housing units, developed for the New York Office of Emergency Management, could preempt a housing issue the next time disaster strikes.

Architect and Pratt Institute professor Jim Garrison’s “Urban Post Disaster Housing Prototype,” a project overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is made up of prefabricated modules that can be assembled in just about 15 hours. The core of the structure consists of three 480-square-foot bedrooms stacked in a walk-up on stilts, though the building is also accessible for those in wheelchairs.

“A long time ago, we had a conversation about what it would take to house the homeless,” Garrison says. “People were coming up with all sorts of elaborate cardboard boxes. Finally, we came to our senses, in that a home for a homeless person is no different than a home for anyone else.”

The prototype design also incorporates some serious energy efficiency. According to Garrison, just allowing for cross-ventilation and a balcony system that blocks direct summer sunlight can shave two months off air-conditioner use from the start and end of the season.

There are also ongoing discussions as to whether the prototype could be used simply as a new set of affordable homes, even in the absence of disaster. A few of Garrison’s colleagues have suggested putting the prototype on a barge and keeping it anchored to the harbor, creating a series of resilient houseboats. Otherwise, he says, it’s likely that the prototype could last 20 years.

“The idea of this housing was to make it versatile enough so that you could install it in neighborhoods so that residents aren’t displaced, so they’re not sent to other neighborhoods,” Garrison says. “Your children can still go to the same schools they were part of. You can still be part of the social and economic circle of your neighborhood.”


At the same time, it’s unclear whether the prototype could really withstand freakish future storms. But the likelihood of storm damage also depends on other measures taken to protect the coastline. A giant strip of parkland that hugs the island and acts as a buffer zone for storm surge might not be enough.

Until then, the prototype will sit on top of a hill near Garrison’s firm in DUMBO while undergoing real living experiments. The New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering and the Pratt Institute will invite guests to stay in the unit for up to five days to test it out.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.