Natural disasters leave victims who continue to suffer long after the media turns its focus elsewhere. People who lose their homes and all of their possessions may feel lucky to be alive, but they need a place where to continue to live. Recently, some architects and others interested in providing temporary, emergency housing have begun to make use of a resource that seems plentiful – metal shipping containers.
The idea started in part due to the overflow of containers that are piling up in harbors along both coasts of the United States. In New York alone, over a million of these empty containers are stored in the harbor and along the Jersey turnpike. There are two main reasons for this excess of containers:
- We have been importing more than we have been exporting. So the containers come in full of imported goods but then we aren’t filling them back up and circulating them back into the world market.
- Companies don’t have much of an incentive to return the containers to their source. For example, in China, it costs about $2,300 to make one of these containers. But for a US company to ship an empty container back to China would cost about $900. So instead of spending the money, US companies have simply begun to store them.
So the argument has been made that these containers could be turned into shelter for use in emergencies. In light of the recent aftermath of hurricane Katrina, there could actually be immediate need for such shelters. Ideally, the converted containers could be delivered by truck to the actual home sight of the disaster victims. They could live in the shelter on their own land, using the utilities that are already supplied to that lot until their home is rebuilt. The shelters would be preferable to tents because of their steel beam construction. They can endure strong winds, snow and even wildfires.
However, the first step is to get the containers converted. At the moment, there are a few problems that those performing the conversion face. First of all, the containers are only 8 feet wide which doesn’t create much room. Cutting away sides and joining 2 containers together can solve this problem. Windows and other holes for utilities have to be cut with a blow torch, requiring specialized labor. So, at the moment, the cost of converting these shipping containers would be prohibitive.
But there is a solution to this problem. Proponents of the idea, including professors, students, nonprofit organizations and some members of the building industry suggest that the containers should be designed so that conversion is possible at some point in the future. They could have removable panels that would not endanger the integrity of the container when it’s being used for shipping and could be easily removed when the container is needed in an emergency for shelter. When needed, these containers could then be transported and set up much faster and would be a much more comfortable solution for the victims.
There are still many questions about this idea, mostly about how to get enough interest from the government agencies that are responsible for disaster relief as well as from the companies that manufacture and use the containers. For example, who will pay for the changes needed to the equipment and processes that the manufacturers might use? What type of notification and organization system will be put into place to direct the distribution and installation of the shelters? What happens to the containers once the victims have acquired permanent housing? And again, who will pay for the delivery and removal of the units? All of these and other questions would need to be answered before the idea could be put into widespread use. Although the idea is still in the formative stages, it definitely shows promise.
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