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Architects prepare for disaster

Features | September 1, 2009 | By:

New York architects Viraline have a plan for repopulating Manhattan — after the hurricane that hasn’t happened yet hits the NYC shoreline causing Katrina-like damage; it could happen.

In theory, shelter is such a simple, basic concept. When the need for shelter is thrown into high relief by a disaster, however, it becomes a more complicated picture. Hurricane Katrina’s head-banging wrath is testimony. It was also the motivation for the New York City Office of Emergency Management’s 2007 competition seeking post-disaster provisional housing solutions for a Category 3 hurricane landfall on Manhattan. No joke. Manhattan, with its bays and rivers, is vulnerable to devastating storm surges. The NYC OEM competition’s goal was, post-evacuation, to repopulate damaged areas with original residents in order to maintain viable communities and neighborhoods during a reconstruction process. Given Manhattan’s density, typical Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) housing is not a physically viable or satisfactory option.

Enter Viraline, a modest NYC architectural firm with expansive ideas. At the heart of its NYC competition proposal was the abstract notion of “dignity.” Viraline asked, how could provisional housing allow people to continue their lives in their respective neighborhoods, under untold stress, with an element of dignity? Viraline’s answer was Rapidly Deployable Inflatable Containers (RDIC), an innovative, modular environment that took to heart the innate needs of privacy, personal identity, accessibility, flexibility, security, light, health and green space. “Through flexible, phased staging, the housing will reestablish the area by fulfilling a master plan that evaluates and corrects previous urban planning shortcomings, activates streetscapes and maximizes green spaces,” states the proposal.

Viraline’s RDIC proposal and masterplan recognized not only the immediate need for provisional housing, but also the correction of previous urban planning problems shortcomings. In other words, what was wrong pre-disaster should not be replicated post-disaster. “Our RDIC provisional housing has a dual capability,” states James Vira, Viraline principal. “It fulfills a short-term need but allows for long-term change in the urban fabric.” One of 10 competition winners, Viraline’s RDIC proposal is potentially one of two or three that will be realized as a prototype through FEMA funding.

Viraline’s solution is a hybrid concept that integrates rigid container architecture with inflatable architecture, culling the best from both to create the highly portable and flexible RDIC. Delivered to the site as a 2.6m x 4m rigid container, each container can fully open to a4m x 5m inflatable structure that and can be joined with others, and is stackable up to nine units. Units can be configured from a one-unit studio living space to a three-bedroom home, all of which provide minimal kitchen and bathroom facilities. The rigid container outer shell serves as a grade-level foundation, allowing inhabitants to reside at least a floor above street level, and contains services such as laundry, storage, security offices and other utilitarian functions.

Moreover, the RDIC units will be made of recyclable materials ranging from the steel framework to polished concrete floors to cork wall coverings. “Fabric section walls will be able to be replaced when they degrade as will the natural cork liner walls,” explains Vira. “What gets worn out can be dismantled and recycled.”

The RDIC units are also designed to be highly transportable and meet universal shipping standards to facilitate quick delivery of as many units as possible during an emergency. Prior to inflation, the fabric packs comfortably within the rigid container, providing safe storage and transfer. Every RDIC is prepped for deployment with all necessary fixtures, furnishing and accessories required for habitation. Units can be automatically deployed without the need for additional labor, thus avoiding draining an already stressed labor pool in an unsafe or evacuated area. Fabric allows this all to be possible.

Although each RDIC component is designed for quick assembly, the system promotes healthy viable living. Viraline is working with ILC Dover to identify what inflatable fabric is most appropriate for RDIC provisional housing needs. A puncture-proof opaque SuperFabric™ will be used for the lower register of each unit, with a more translucent fabric employed for the upper area. The inflated fabric itself will have physical benefits that are superior to other options, including sound and vibration dampening, diffused light transmission, insulation properties and solar reflectivity. The RDIC system acknowledges the profound importance of light: Inhabitants must be able to sense the changing times of day and to have physical access to the outside. The multilayer fabric system must be translucent enough to allow light into the space, but will have a metallic outer layer coating to reflect light to reduce heat gain. Three operable windows made of Lexan™ polycarbonate will naturally ventilate each unit. “We need to find a balance between the more opaque puncture-proof SuperFabric and a more transparent fabric,” says Vira. “We need to come up with the best optimum mix.”

With regard to aesthetics, RDIC units do not scream “provisional housing” as do FEMA trailers, the “Katrina Cottages.” More visionary in their look and ability to be combined in different modular configurations, RDIC groupings allow inhabitants to identify with their individual homes as “theirs.” Viraline’s masterplan also promotes the necessity of open or green space. And, importantly, RDIC housing is intended for a maximum use of five years so there is never confusion that the units are permanent residences.

Vira also acknowledges the importance of the livability and individuality of multiple RDIC structures. It is important that people can identify their RDIC complex as unique. “Under extreme circumstances it is important for people to be able to see that their grouping is different from the next, that they have a sense of individuality,” states Vira. “It’s less about ‘take this housing because you need it,’ and more about ‘I have a place that is pretty good to live in, given the circumstances.’”

Mason Riddle is a contributing editor for Fabric Architecture. Her feature on smart materials-sustainable futures appeared in the July/August issue.

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