Emergency Housing Need Sparks Creative Designs Natural disasters often leave thousands of people homeless. How to house these people is a problem yet to be convincingly solved. But that hasn't stopped some architects from trying.
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Emergency Housing Need Sparks Creative Designs

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Emergency Housing Need Sparks Creative Designs

Emergency Housing Need Sparks Creative Designs

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This year's hurricane season and the earthquake in Pakistan have focused attention on, among other things, emergency housing. Architects and designers have been trying to respond to these disasters, designing innovative, low-cost emergency shelter. But as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, designing that kind of housing is one thing; building it and installing it is another.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Carib Martin has just built a new house on his property in Bethesda, Maryland. It took him about a week.

Mr. CARIB MARTIN: So, as you can see, it's 8-foot-by-8-foot-by-12-foot long, and the basic idea of this unit is it's really meant to go on the owner's property whose home has been destroyed. So that way they can secure their property as well as start rebuilding as opposed to creating these trailer parks, basically, that they're doing now.

SHAPIRO: He calls it the HELP House. It cost him $8,000 to build. And now that he knows it works, he'd like to see it multiply.

Mr. MARTIN: Any designer, any creator wants their object, their thing, to be active in the world. You know, otherwise, it's just a game you play by yourself, and that's never any fun.

SHAPIRO: Response to the HELP House has been almost entirely positive, but nobody's offered to fund the project on a large scale. Architect Michael Berk has encountered the same problem at Mississippi State University, where he's designed an energy-efficient mobile home that meets international building codes. His project is called the Green Mobile(ph).

Mr. MICHAEL BERK (Mississippi State University): Usually, nobody likes my work, except for a few people and they're willing to pay for it. Now everybody seems to like this, and I can't find any money for it.

SHAPIRO: Part of the problem is that a large-scale emergency housing project requires at least as much business sense as it does design talent. And Berk is an architect, not an entrepreneur.

Mr. BERK: If I was a business person, I would be out traveling around the country right now trying to hook up with people. I'd be talking to venture capitalists. This would be a full-time job for me. Well, that's not what I do. I'm a teacher and I'm a researcher.

SHAPIRO: A non-profit group called Architecture for Humanity tries to help designers get their projects to those in need after a natural disaster. Kate Stohr's one of the organization's founders. She says the process can take years.

Ms. KATE STOHR (Co-founder, Architecture for Humanity): The first challenge is to sort of get people to think about it before the disaster happens, because once you've had a disaster of the magnitude of Katrina, for example, it's too late to start thinking about emergency shelter.

SHAPIRO: AFH learned that lesson in 1999 when the organization sponsored a contest to design housing for refugees in war-torn Kosovo. The contest was an initial success, with more than 200 entries coming in. Then Architecture for Humanity learned how long it would take to get any of the entries to Kosovo in big enough numbers to matter.

Ms. STOHR: It's really tragic in a certain way because these designers spend so much time working on them. But in part, the problem is that they're not working with manufacturing partners or building systems partners. So--and a lot of times they can get it so far on their own, and then they need support.

SHAPIRO: Some projects are more successful than others. At Auburn University in Alabama, D.K. Ruth is working on a project called a warm, dry room. It's a shipping container modified to house people for roughly $2,000. Ruth says the governor's support gives him confidence that this project will likely be put to use along the Gulf Coast when it's finished.

Mr. D.K. RUTH (Auburn University): Governor Riley was very excited about what we're trying to do for the state of Alabama, and he's the one that really has connected us to FEMA and to the state emergency relief agencies.

SHAPIRO: The need for short-term housing is urgent when disaster strikes. Then it tends to fade as other forms of help arrive. But designers of these emergency solutions are patient; they know that even if FEMA doesn't use their idea for this disaster, there will always be a next one. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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