Modern Housing Solutions for Natural Disasters

Guest blog by Casey Heigl:

Most people measure a hurricane, tornado, or any other natural disaster based on wind speed or lives lost. The lingering effects of natural disasters can be much more complex. Damaged and destroyed housing causes thousands of people to be displaced every year and, in severe cases, that displacement can last for months or become permanent.

Hurricane Katrina became infamous for the number of New Orleans residents who were forced to live in trailer parks and hotels for months, and Hurricane Harvey now seems to have caused a similar housing crisisin Texas. Puerto Ricos situation is even more dire since widespread power outages have complicated transportation and recovery logistics in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Tornados, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and other natural disasters are difficult to predict and essentially impossible to prevent. Caring for communities in the aftermath of such disasters is a logistical and financial challenge, but new improvements in architecture make it possible for innovative housing to be constructed.

Materials

Traditionally, canvas tents have been used for refugee camps and natural disaster recovery efforts. While some hard-walled trailers and structures made of plastic sheeting are used in more developed nations, other areas of the world have struggled to provide long-lasting and inexpensive materials to relief efforts after disasters.

A range of plastic and metal materials now make it possible to construct temporary or permanent housing more easily than ever before. Improvements in concrete manufacturing have also made precast concrete structures more feasible. While not appropriate for all housing applications, concrete structures can be great for communities that are ready to rebuild permanently.

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Flexibility

In some cases, residents may need to adapt their temporary housing into more permanent structures eventually. This is especially true after major disasters, and for regions where logistical and financial obstacles will hinder full recovery for years. Some temporary housing designs are modular in nature; families can start out with a single room and add an additional room to create a more permanent living environment as soon as funds and supplies become available.

Affordability

While canvas will always be the cheapest option for temporary housing, it is drafty and prone to wear and tear. Long-term camps will need to replace canvas on a regular basis, making other materials like plastic or even concrete a worthwhile investment.

However, the relative expense of concrete housing is not worthwhile for short-term housing. Plastic-and-metal structures are a good balance between affordability and stability that many governments and relief organizations can move to another area later.

Its also important to consider the cost of disposal, storage, or relocation after the need for temporary housing has faded. Some materials can likely be reused quickly but may need to be transported several states away. Like all materials, plastic sheeting and other components will need to be disposed of in a relatively environmentally friendly manner once they have been worn out, and this comes with a price tag as well.

Portability

Most disaster-hit areas must transport in food, water, medical supplies, and emergency personnel in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Housing supplies take time, space, and energy to move, making them a significant drain on relief effort resources. Constructing housing also can take time away from other recovery efforts.

Designers of temporary disaster housing have struggled to balance portability, cost, and ease of construction, but have made major improvements. One disaster home designcan collapse down to 25% of its full size for transport and is easily reconstructed on-site. IKEA and the United Nations Refugee Agencycollaborated to design a structure that is transported completely flat and which can house five people when fully built.

The downside of prioritizing portability is that lightweight, easy-to-transport materials are often favored over strong ones. While plenty of materials balance both weight and strength, some regions prone to earthquakes or hurricanes may need the strongest materials possible. There is also an issue of prioritizing portability over adequate living space; single-room housing may suffice in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but stays of three months or longer will require more room so families and individuals can attempt to rebuild their lives.

Improving Current Practices

Trailers and mobile homes are commonly used after disasters in the United States, but there is some debate as to how cost-effective they are. In some climates, less-expensive buildings may be constructed without large amounts of insulation. High-quality plastic sheeting that can be assembled on-site can be supplemented with air conditioning or heating units to improve resident comfort without the logistical hassle and cost associated with moving an entire trailer.

However, some civilians may resist the idea of living in a plain concrete home or plastic-walled unit. Misconceptions about the pros and cons of such housing are likely to exist, especially among recent survivors of natural disasters, who would understandably be nervous about an unfamiliar shelter.

Reusing Housing

While fully built concrete structures lack portability, they may still be a worthwhile investment for regions prone to hurricanes and other seasonal extreme weather. Unfortunately, natural disasters like hurricanes are frequent enough that as one region recovers another is likely to occur. Thus, it may be well worth it for governments of larger nations to begin investing in small amounts of longer-lasting concrete housing complexes that house evacuees as needed.

For example, the southern region of the United States is becoming increasingly prone to hurricanes. Some areas are more prone to flooding and high winds than others and building safe housing much farther inland from these areas could prove worthwhile. Individuals could even be encouraged to evacuate to the temporary housing ahead of time if they reside in particularly vulnerable areas.

While there may be logistical issues with moving people to housing, it is arguably even more difficult to move sturdy housing to people. There is also likely to be a high price tag associated with maintaining such housing over time, but that may pale in comparison to the costs of purchasing and moving temporary housing around every time a hurricane hits.

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The Future

Overall, 3D design software, rapid prototyping, advancements in industrial adhesivesand other technological improvements are making it possible to envision innovative post-disaster housing. Even more, innovations are likely to emerge as scientists and designers build off each others ideas and join forces to create the best, cheapest, and safest housing possible. In the future, disaster recovery organizations may be able to spend more time and resources on schooling and emotional support, rather than bare necessities like housing.

Only time will tell if these innovative design ideas come to fruition, though. The financial, logistical, and even political feasibility of various housing solutions after natural disasters will vary from country to country, and even from region to region. Ultimately, the creators of innovative architectural ideas will likely bear the burden of advocating for and proving the value of their designs.

Casey Heigl is the Marketing Manager for Hotmelt.com, one of the companies that makes up Heigl Technologies. She has extensive knowledge of hot melt applications, vendors, industry trends and how they are used across various verticals. Casey enjoys sharing her unique perspective through her blog writing.