Garrison Architects/ emergency housing

When Garrison Architects unveiled their full-size prototype for post-disaster housing it was described as "a step forward in the way that cities respond to natural disasters". Their project was developed for the New York City Office of Emergency Management and is believed to be "a blueprint for post-disaster housing", according to Studio founder and principal James Garrison.




Arabic Gate for Architectural News has reached out to Mr. James Garrison to ask about the applicability of his prototype in post- war contexts as a part of our initiative "Rebuilding Destroyed Cities". In our interview with Mr. James here is what he has told us regarding the merits of the emergency housing in post-war contexts:




    1-    At Garrison Architects, you have developed your Emergency Housing prototype as housing units to be plugged on site and can be stacked "like Legos"; how close is it to Kisho Kurokawa's "Capsule Housing" in the seventies, and can your prototype be valid as a tower building?

The Capsule Housing project is a beautiful example of the power of prefabrication, and it is definitely an inspiration for all of our prefab projects. The Emergency Housing prototype can be stacked up to 3 stories tall, but not higher due to building code restrictions. Similarly, to the Capsule Housing, some of the construction work takes place on site, like the foundation for instance. All of the modules are fabricated off site in a factory, which greatly increases efficiency, while reducing construction waste.

    2-    Architecture today is witnessing the trend of using shipping containers as an individual housing or even hotels, don't you fear for your prototype to become a permanent housing for the displaced people?

The Emergency Housing Prototype we’ve built isn’t a shipping container; it is actually 50% wider than a shipping container, and a few feet taller. Shipping containers are very difficult to make livable – as soon as you start retrofitting them to make them livable you lose the cost efficiency that made them the choice in the first place.

The Housing Prototype is a type of “Interim Housing.” It is not the first solution in place to house people immediately following an emergency. It will take about 6 months to install these housing units following a disaster. It’s also important to note that most Interim Housing does become permanent housing. Even temporary housing is incredibly expensive to build, so it just doesn’t make sense to build it and then tear it down later. That’s why we’ve designed and built the Emergency Housing Prototype to a very high standard of living. It is just as big as typical NYC apartments, and all of the interior finishes are designed to withstand wear-and-tear.

   3-    Destroyed contexts due natural disasters differs from those which are destroyed by wars; is your prototype applicable in the man-made destruction contexts?

The modules are incredibly flexible – they can be installed anywhere as long as there is a foundation to receive them. We have even been tossing around an idea of installing the housing units on a floating barge, so that the houses could float over water to be installed along the coast line.

    4-    You have conducted an over-six -years research on New York city before the Emergency housing see the light; however, can this prototype be considered a universal prototype or is it going to undergo a radical changes from one country to another, and how so?

Actually the research was undertaken by the New York City Office of Emergency Management. The program was called “What If NYC…” and started as a competition in 2008. The competition submissions addressed the topic of post-disaster housing, and went on to be synthesized into a manual for emergency housing that guided our own design.

The prototype is designed to meet very strict requirements, including the NYC building code. In addition it meets strict requirements set forth by the “Urban Interim Housing Unit S

    5-    In the ME's ongoing wars at the moment complete cities are being destroyed; as in the unfortunate case of Syria for example, where infrastructure and vital amenities are being utterly destroyed or unfunctioning, can your prototype play an urban role; i.e. can it stretch to replace the missing amenities such as schools and health centers?

One of the beautiful aspects of modular building is just how flexible it is. We have designed a daycare center using modular units, so yes, it is absolutely possible to design public amenities like schools and hospitals with a modular building system. The stackable modules that we have designed are calibrated for urban environments – their layout is actually very similar to one of the most successful housing models of all time - a typical Brooklyn brownstone row home.

    6-    One of the innovative aspects of your emergency housing prototype that it can be a 'Shelter in place' where it can installed on site and plugged into the existing power and water infrastructure within 15 hours; however, how can it function in the case of complete destruction of infrastructure in the stricken area?

The installation of the modules themselves, as you mention, is remarkably fast. The real difficulty stems from utilities. The amount of time needed to install these units in any location depends largely on the utilities available. We are also tackling the issue by looking at methods of creating completely off-the-grid modules with all of the necessary functions, like power, water, and sewage collection, contained within the module itself.

    7-    In the US several initiatives has been launched in the wake of the natural disasters, such as Brad Pitt's Make It Right foundation, which featured housing by architects including Frank Gehry, and the Rebuild by Design project that will be upgraded by BIG in his winning proposal for Lower Manhattan's storm defenses. Despite the horridness of today's reality in the Arab World, our Rebuilding Destroyed Cities Initiative is the only one of its kind locally; in your opinion how is it possible for the Arab World to benefit from the existing expertise in the west in the area of rebuilding war affected cities?

What we are learning is that the modular approach to design is incredibly flexible, and with careful analysis, it can be utilized in a very wide range of areas. For instance, our housing prototype could relatively easily be deployed to any area of the United States, due to the fact that it meets some of the most stringent building code requirements in the country. On the flip side, the successful deployment of these units requires a very local execution. It is important to meet with local communities to discuss emergency preparedness before any disasters occur. Careful planning at a local level is absolutely vital to any project’s success.

    8-    Post-war cities come out very weak economically unlike the case of post-natural disaster contexts; can your prototype be considered economical enough to fit in the post-war contexts?

The emergency housing prototype we’ve developed fits very well within the New York City context. One important realization that we made through our research is that often, emergency housing becomes permanent housing. The costs of erecting any sort of emergency housing are immense, not only due to the costs of the units, but the costs of utilities as well. So it is important that the units are built to a very high quality, that anyone is comfortable to live in to its fullest extent.

    9-    Destruction seen on screens today is actually very much different from the real fact on ground to a degree it can be overwhelming and confusing to many especially to an architect trying to come up with solutions; from your expertise where should architects begin conceptually and on-ground to rebuild post-war cities?

The best method to tackle these very tricky situations is to plan for them well in advance. Right now the team at the NYC Office of Emergency Management is embarking on a study to find out where the emergency housing units can be placed in any New York City neighborhood. Site selection is of utmost importance, and being able to select the appropriate sites before a natural disaster will speed up the disaster response time dramatically.




Garrison Architects was founded in 1991 as a midsized firm with highly personalized service. Led by architect James Garrison the Brooklyn-based firm designs buildings through a process of extensive research that responds to the current economic, cultural, technical and environmental challenges.

They are known for integrating their critical approach with a highly refined modernist aesthetic in collaboration with an extensive group of designers, engineers, and manufacturers to create truly innovative work in industrialized building process and sustainable design.

The firm has an extremely wide range of experience with projects that have included design, urban design and planning, interior design, product design, feasibility analysis, modular structures and LEED certification services.




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