Haiti's Residential Quick Fix

Once the residents of Port-au-Prince are medically stabilized who is going to help rebuild Haiti? A design-build team at Clemson University's School of Architecture has a green solution for quickly finding homes for the thousands of displaced Haitians following last week's catastrophic 7.0-magnitude earthquake and today's 6.1-magnitude aftershock. Empty shipping containers.

Motivated by the recent devastation of hurricanes in the Caribbean and the U.S., the SEED Project began experimenting with the repurposing of empty shipping containers. The surplus of massive, weather-withstanding empty containers sitting in the ports of Haiti and the Dominican Republic could quickly and easily be converted into sustainable emergency housing.

Making shipping containers into residences isn't a new concept. In fact, it can be a pretty nice place to call home. Projects like Tempo Housing'sKeetwonen complex in Amsterdam is home to 1,000 students and has amenities like personal balconies, free wi-fi and dedicated bike parking. Urban Space Management conceptualized Container City and Container City II in London, a complex of four- and five-story buildings -- Container City II even has an elevator and is handicap accessible. There's also the uber-lux Redondo Beach House by De Maria Design -- eight prefabricated, recycled steel shipping containers refashioned into some really fancy living.

But the work by the Clemson crew isn't about bells and whistles.
"What distinguishes this project from other existing shipping container projects are the social and environmental features," says associate professor Doug Hecker of Clemson's School of Architecture. Their goal is to transform each container for less than $5,000. "Those boutique container projects started as interesting, affordable and cool, but now they are just very expensive. From a design point of view, the social humanitarian aspect is what makes our project different."

The structure of shipping containers work extremely well in disaster prone areas. They even exceed U.S. building codes.

Pernille Christensen, a Clemson Ph.D. student also working on the project says, "Shipping containers are a surplus item in many ports worldwide and especially in the very places that need it." The reason? There is significantly more importing than exporting in the Caribbean. It's costly to send back empty shipping containers so they are just sitting there and piling up.

"The surplus of containers will accumulate as they normally do," says Clemson assistant professor Martha Skinner. " [So] no energy or money is spent disposing of them, moving them or destroying them," Any additional materials in the containers can be used to help build the houses too. "[They] will be...at the ports as a kind of first aid kit to be deployed in the case of an emergency," adds Skinner who emphasizes the minimal impact the SEED project has on the environment. "Very little transportation would be needed. All ports would continue to collect the surplus as the delivery of goods continue, so the emergency system will constantly be replenished."

Essentially, the Clemson crew wants to track down empty containers and make Haiti and other suffering countries a final destination. Retiring the containers would then be financially beneficial to the container companies for tax write offs. Meanwhile, the local population receives above standard housing. Using shipping containers could accomplish what New Orleans still hasn't following Hurricane Katrina and the long-time displacement of thousands of residents.

"It's a global commodity that can be a local amenity," says Christensen. "They're a sustainable alternative solution. We're recycling a product, finding reuse for it, and creating a whole new birth cycle."

A floor plan shows the container opened with six cuts. Two horizontal cuts along the long sides open the container and create a courtyard space while two verticalcuts extend and expand the floor-to-ceiling space. The remaining two cuts are added for ventilation. The rusted steel containers measure roughly 40 feet long by 8 feet wide, can carry up to 60,000lbs of goods and stack 8 containers high when fully loaded. They'll be available in different vibrant colors apropos to the Caribbean. The Clemson prototype has a lime green ceramic painted exterior and an aqua patina on the inside. "They're happy kind of places," says Christensen.

As residents settle into the basic structures, over time they can build on and personalize their homes. The team is developing water and off-the-grid technology pods as well as an emergent garden so communities can plant food again quickly while the soil and water are filtrated and cleaned. Designed "like an armadillo," says Hecker, when catastrophe strikes, inhabitants can hatch down, lock up, and protect their belongings in a storage unit while seeking emergency shelter.

"[Shipping containers] are ridiculously strong and robust so they can bounce around a lot." says Hecker. "They are also safe and secure." Hecker doesn't know if they are bulletproof, but "they're much safer than a tin shed."

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