Designing for Disaster: Which is better, modular or shipping container?

OEM Housing
© Garrison Architects

What kind of construction system is best for disaster relief housing? TreeHugger has looked at the issue of shipping containers as housing a number of times, and wondered in the end if they were appropriate. After attending the Modular Construction Summit at Pratt School of Architecture on May 16, it's time to look again.

Modular housingLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In an emergency the first response is with gymnasiums and public buildings tents and generators; that is almost instant, but is only good for six to eight weeks, by which time people need something a little more solid. What should that be?

Six years ago, the City of New York asked that question in a competition What if.... and has been looking for the answer ever since. We noted last year that they had settled on shipping containers supplied by Sea Box but it has evidently gone in a different direction.

David Burney, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Design & Construction, (on the left in photo) described a project being built by New York's Office of Emergency Management.

OEM Housing© Garrison Architects


The modular building is designed by James Garrison (see his prefab lifeguard stations here) It is a very attractive building with generous room sizes.

Interior © Garrison Architects

But where do you store 15,000 of these, and who is going to pay for them? Burney described what he called a "requirement contract" system, where builders would stock materials and, much like the way the car manufacturers were mobilized in World War II, when the call comes they drop everything and start cranking them out. He says moving fast is better than building and storing. The DDC already has contracts with furniture companies doing this.

But as we have seen, Herman Miller can pop an Aeron off the assembly line every thirteen seconds. A modular house takes a little bit longer.

Or Shipping Container?

William Begley, Director of Sea Box, thinks shipping containers are the right solution for the problem.

You can store them for a dollar a day in secure sites around the country. You can stack them sixteen high. That's the difference between container and modular. The need for temporary product is in the millions, and they can go on ships, there is a handling system that can move them.

Matt Chaban of the New York Observer described the Sea Box units

....a 480-square-foot one-bedroom apartment carved out of a 40-foot-long shipping container. Each one would have a window and a door on each end, providing easy egress—the Fire Department insisted on that—as well as ample light. On one end would be the bedroom, with a bed, dresser, nightstands, probably a lamp or two. On the other end is the living-dining room, with couch, table, maybe an easy chair, and a small kitchen complete with pots, pans, china and flatware. In between is the bathroom, stocked with clean towels, soap, toothbrushes, even toothpaste.

This is where shipping containers shine; modular moves on special flatbeds, whereas shipping containers are all about movement by sea, truck or rail, supported by a vast transport infrastructure.

It's confusing. Last November David Burney told Matt Chaban:

We kept coming back to the shipping containers, because they’re a fairly known quantity in terms of technology and even design, it’s rather cool these days to have a house made out of a shipping container.

garrison© Garrison Architects

Yet now he and the City have moved away from containers and toward modular.

I have often noted that shipping containers are designed for freight and modular, for people. There is no question that the larger modular units are more human scaled, and will be more comfortable. They are certainly more architecturally pleasing. According to one source, that is exactly the conclusion they came to in New York: when they got down to the nitty gritty of designing a unit, a single container was too narrow and a double, joined in the middle, too wide to get a really efficient layout.

But containers know how to move, and Mr. Begley was very convincing. Which is the right solution for this problem?

Designing for Disaster: Which is better, modular or shipping container?
Another look at the question of what is the best way to build good housing in a hurry.

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