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These houses are designed to help Puerto Rico survive future storms

Across the island, architects are testing the limits of resilient, off-grid housing to prepare for the next storm that knocks out power.

These houses are designed to help Puerto Rico survive future storms
[Image: SG Residential]

In Villalba, Puerto Rico, a small town on a remote mountainside in the path of Hurricane Maria, it took months for power and water to come back to some homes after the storm slammed into the island. The infrastructure is still fragile, and access to tap water still sometimes disappears for days at a time.

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Now, architects plan to build a community of resilient homes in the town that can better weather future storms. The houses can work off the grid, without any municipal services, for one to three months, depending on the number of occupants, says Jonathan Marvel, founder of Marvel Architects, a firm based in both New York and Puerto Rico that designed the new houses.

[Image: Marvel Architects]

The design uses solar panels and batteries to supply enough electricity to keep the home running when the grid goes down. A rainwater collection system stores and filters water, while a solar water heater keeps showers warm. Outside, a garden can provide some food. The interior can stay bright with natural light from windows, and uses cross-ventilation and insulated concrete walls to stay cool without air conditioning. (Overheating was a major challenge after Maria, when houses roasted in the humid, hot weather, and people wanted to keep windows closed to shut out the pollution from diesel generators.)

[Image: SG Residential]

The design is “based on what we know is affordable housing in Puerto Rico for a single family,” says Hector Ralat, an architect based in the firm’s Puerto Rican office. “But the focus was to alter the DNA of that knowledge and to put in the essential components that someone would need to sustain living conditions for at least two weeks, which is the recommended time here for someone to receive aid after a disaster.” The houses will likely cost around $120,000, a number that lets homeowners access favorable interest rates on mortgages. The units can be stacked on top of each other; in Villalba, most of the community will be three stories high (the solar will serve the whole building).

[Image: SG Residential]

Other architects are also working on plans to bring more resilient housing to the island. SG Residential, a company that designs buildings from shipping containers, is working with a developer on a community of around 50 homes. While many houses in Puerto Rico are built from concrete–because residents are well aware of the risk of hurricanes–others are still built from wood and don’t fare well in disasters. Shipping containers, designed to withstand the forces at sea, could be a better option.

“We just know our product is better than stick-built construction in these types of dangerous environments,” says Paul Galvin, chairman and CEO of SG Blocks, the parent company of SG Residential. “Heavy-gauge steel structures are just designed to a high tolerance for the effects of climate change.” The houses, most of which will have two bedrooms, will start at $90,000 to $130,000. It might be possible to build cheaper houses, Galvin says, but the company is “trying to deliver product that is quality-driven, in that it’s going to be built once and it’s not going to be destroyed every storm.” The company is also working with a bank to create a mortgage that is similar in monthly cost to a car payment. The design can incorporate solar panels.

[Photo: José Madera]

HiveCube, another modular housing company, is also using shipping containers, and has targeted a much lower cost–the houses start at $39,000 for a two-bedroom home. “We believe that your safety should not be a matter of income, but a given when you are planning to buy a home for your family,” says María Velasco, cofounder of HiveCube. The homes are designed to be fully off the grid, with solar power and batteries, a rainwater collection system, and a gray and black water treatment system that uses plants and bacteria to treat wastewater instead of septic tanks.

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[Photo: Natalia de la Rosa/Foca Foca Films]

“One of the biggest challenges we have faced is figuring out how people who earn the median income of $20,000 or less will be able to finance our homes,” says Velasco. “Since this is a new product, there is no type of mortgaging standard for financing this type of housing.” The company is working with a bank on options for financing. Getting materials is also a challenge because of the amount of construction happening in Puerto Rico now. The designers sold their first home to a family in the city of Vieques who lost their home during the hurricane, and expect to deliver it in mid-December. The company aims to scale up to be able to produce 100 “Hive” homes a month for disaster relief, while providing local jobs.

[Photo: José Madera]

In Villalba, Marvel Architects is still working through the final steps before construction of its prototype community can begin on a piece of land provided by the city government. As other cities and towns have learned about the project, they’ve also started talking with the architects; it’s possible, Ralat says, that another town may be able to move through the permitting process faster. The first prototype may be built in the first quarter of 2019. The architects are tailoring the design so that it can be on the ground as quickly as possible. “The more you can tool up in a controlled production environment like a factory–it doesn’t make it cheaper, necessarily, but it just makes them faster to assemble. And we know that in Puerto Rico labor is in demand,” says Marvel. The more quickly the homes can be built, the more resilient each community will be in the next major storm.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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