Gongol.com Archives: August 2021

Brian Gongol

August 30, 2021

Weather and Disasters How do we quickly replace housing?

Americans have no problem adopting a lot of new habits and hobbies when the circumstances warrant. When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down a lot of the ordinary recreational and travel options that people expected to enjoy, there was a widely-noted rush to spend more time outdoors, particularly noticeable with a giant surge in sales of campers and recreational vehicles. Those new owners joined a large number of Americans already in possession of highly-mobile living spaces. It's estimated that 11.2 million US households own some kind of recreational vehicle. ■ That number is far from trivial. And yet, the recreational vehicle industry estimates that the average RV is used only 20 days out of the year. In a sense, that means we as a country have what might be considered a ready housing reserve equal to 8% of all of the estimated 140,775,530 households in the country sitting idle a median of 345 days of the year. ■ Obviously, that's not how we treat housing; RVs and campers may largely sit dormant, but they are not all that easily shared on demand, nor do they sit waiting for deployment like a housing equivalent of the Army Reserve. ■ But with wildfires effectively destroying entire towns in California, rapidly-intensifying major hurricanes erupting in the Gulf of Mexico, tens of thousands of refugees seeking shelter, and countless other major natural and man-made disasters emerging all the time, it's worth conducting a small thought experiment. ■ The need for emergency housing is already periodically evident, and with population growth continuing (and population density increasing in disaster-prone areas), that need is likely to increase both in frequency and intensity. Thus, a question: Why have we not settled on a common national standard for an emergency housing supply that could be rapidly deployed during times of need? ■ It has been widely noted that the development of the standardized shipping container has revolutionized international trade because it enables the standardization of container movement by road, rail, and sea. It simply cannot be beyond our capacities to come up with a comparable (if not compatible) approach to emergency housing -- a standardized size and shape, with consistent connections for basic utility access (water, wastewater, electricity, and telecommunications). ■ The biggest advantage to a standardized system would be that it could enable two forms of modularity. First, it would make it possible for manufacturers to develop a consistent product (the housing module itself) that could be built in volume, stockpiled as necessary, and even forward-deployed in advance of need. Particularly in a time when natural disasters seem to be intensifying in severity much faster than we have accepted historically, deployment speed and scale of preparation are both of the essence. ■ The second form of modularity would be to enable the standardization of receiving systems. From time to time, architects have proposed (and some developers have even constructed) structures like towers that could hold lots of independent modular units around a common superstructure. These ideas have never really taken off in the ordinary housing market, but the increasing sophistication of certain advanced construction techniques like 3D printing and mass timber (including some being demonstrated outside the United States) could permit the speedy deployment of facilities ready to accept the housing modules in a true "plug-and-play" fashion. ■ Ideally, people needing emergency housing due to a major disaster could be speedily settled into some kind of home they could not only consider their own, but also move and use as a foundation (metaphorically) to rebuild. The notorious "FEMA trailer" took on a bad reputation in part because they were intended to be temporary and to remain government-owned. ■ But ownership matters, and even a modest module intended to be permanent and occupant-owned may be a more satisfactory option than a larger or more well-appointed system intended to be returned at the end of the housing emergency. If the rise of tiny homes is any indication, there is plenty of room for innovative and creative thinking that could be applied to emergency housing. California's rush to fill vacant spaces with "granny flats" (auxiliary dwelling units, or ADUs) could well be a source of real innovation. And enterprising thinkers might even find ways to develop compatibility between RV platforms and emergency housing modules, so that those households who wanted them could purchase such units during good times, customize them to suit their preferences, and have them available on short notice in case of disaster. ■ Thinking small, thinking about permanence, thinking about economies of scale, and thinking about modularity in the big things (like where utility connections would go) and about customization in the little ones might add up to some useful solutions in the years ahead. There's no reason to believe that the problems that create housing emergencies are going to shrink in scale anytime in the foreseeable future. The cleverness and ingenuity that have manifested themselves in RVs and ADUs could serve us well if applied to housing emergencies, too. What may make the most difference is establishing the right (limited) standards and priming the market to respond.