What if?

In American locution, the speculative pause after “What if..?” is usually meant positively…as in “What if pigs could fly?” or, this being America, “What if money grew on trees?” But, “What if New York City…?” is an urban post-disaster housing prototype program in response to hurricanes, rising tides and other disasters not often mentioned. As befits its haunting title, the program was begun in 2008, after 9/11, although before the arrival of Super Storm Sandy. The New York City Department of Emergency Management (OEM), specifically its Housing Recovery division managed by Cynthia Barton, recognized that the disaster response protocols of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), while much improved since Hurricane Katrina, had been developed for the larger United States where vast suburban settlements surround small urban cores, not for New York City’s 9 million people occupying small islands and peninsulas connected by limited and often congested roadways. The prototype program would address this mismatch with the development of a high-density solution that could accommodate a meaningful percent of the 30,000 or more people who could potentially be displaced in an event. The goal was an interim housing prototype that could be installed in a matter of months and remain in place for a matter of years. While commissioned by New York City, it was to be a truly replicable solution to be shared with other dense, land-strapped cities.

The development began with a “What if…?” ideas competition, spearheaded by Barton, that received 117 entries, including one design for balloon homes that seemed to ask,” What if we could at least float…if not fly?” Most, however, were sober attempts at prefabricated containerized or panelized modules. Their speculative and often baroque systems of joinery and material might have been far outside of the ambitions and logics of actual prefabricated manufacture; but, taken together, they posed the right questions. Some were tall, some short, some floated or sat on piers; others nestled in the urban fabric. Viewed as an ensemble, they broached the subject that no single module design could address, namely the subject of the city that these modules when amassed would inadvertently build.

In 2012, Barton at OEM and New York City Department of City Planning (DCP) began to address the subject of the interim city in a “playbook” guide to both the selection of sites and their urban design. The guide expanded on the argument implicit in the modules that interim housing should “shelter–in-place,” meaning that it should restore people to their neighborhoods, not relocate them at large distances from their social networks, homes and schools. It should return consumers to their corner stores, dry cleaners and restaurants in order to sustain the local and larger city economy and its social fabric as well. Most of the principles that City Planning used in their normative, contextual zoning in the outer boroughs of New York found their way into this playbook’s illustrations of buildings that reinforced the street and the neighborhood’s massing with low rise, high density residences on top of ground floor commercial uses. If the apartments were small, the courtyard amenities and parking made up for it.

The uncanny resemblance of this disaster induced, interim neighborhood and the Department of City Planning’s vision of the future was made even more explicit through a project sponsored by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), called adAPT. AdAPT is a building prototype of “micro-apartments,” each approximately 350 square feet, which is almost half the minimum size allowed by current City zoning. The housing advocacy and research group, Citizen’s Housing and Policy Council, first launched this project in 2012 with a more comprehensive museum exhibit of new housing proposals for the housing crises in New York, which effects the entire population from large extended families and the aged to the single young adults, touring performers, global entrepreneurs and Emergency Room doctors who could use an extended version of the Japanese pod hotel. But it was the compact micro-unit mocked-up in the Museum of the City of New York that caught the Mayor’s imagination, in part because it increases the number of units for sale or rent allowed on a piece of property and so appeals to private development. The first, test building, developed by the private company Monadnock in collaboration with the not-for–profit Actors Fund Development Corporation and designed by nArchitects is slated to rise in Kips Bay Manhattan near Bellevue Hospital. It corresponds almost exactly in its brief and spirit to the interim housing illustrated by City Planning, with prefabricated residential modules on top of a commercial base and shared amenities of a salon and a roof garden, rather than a courtyard, to extend the space for residents beyond their small apartments.

In a process similar to the development of adAPT, OEM used its study project as the basis for the creation of a performance specification and then a call for proposals for the design and development of several modular test units. Developed by American Manufactured AMSS, designed by Garrison Architects, and prefabricated by Mark Line Industries in a factory in Indiana, the units have just been installed on a parking lot next to OEM headquarters where they will remain for a year to be viewed, assessed- and even lived in by New Yorkers.

In designing the modules, Garrison Architects self-consciously attempted to merge the mandates of interim post disaster shelter, with the emerging housing needs and desires of New Yorkers. They had entered the aDAPT call for proposals with Gans studio, and immersed themselves in the design discussion around the adaptation and invention of housing types for the changing demographics and increased populations of the City. At the forefront of modular design and construction, Garrison has recently completed modular public beach bath houses to replace those destroyed by Sandy, and, without any romantic notions, understands the demands and limitations as well as potential of prefabrication. It was their intention to use their deep technical skill to dissemble rather than underscore the housing’s expiration date and to enable a lifestyle that would feel normal, even gracious in the small modules.

These design intentions met with obstacles from a variety of sources. Unlike the adAPT housing, which was given special permission to ignore code issues, the interim modules were to meet all minimum room standards and stringent American with Disability Act mandates; although combining these requirements with the dimensions of modular construction proved impossible and required exception in the bedrooms. The demand that the housing be planned per usual actually stood in conflict with another set of project principles enunciated by the Department of Design and Construction (DDC), who oversaw the construction, and the federal Army Corps of Engineers, who were the official sponsor and purchaser of the proposal. These two necessary players in the creation of the prototype both felt that interim housing should look temporary, and even encourage, through a certain inadequacy, a discomfort and the desire to move on to permanent housing. Much like the hard plastic seating at McDonalds restaurants, the houses should be just fine for the “short meal” but somehow discourage lingering. This consumer model has informed America’s attitude toward public housing since the Second World War when the term “living in the projects” ceased to refer to one’s place in an aspirational great society and came to connote a shameful dependence on public funds that should be somehow marked physically in the brick and mortar of ones existence to encourage moving up and out. Despite the differing points of view among the team players and the design compromises that ensued, such as the elimination of an enclosed foyer among other small changes, the OEM interim houses emerged fundamentally unscathed, light, airy, cross-ventilated, with porches for shade and built-in cabinets for openness, livable to the degree that, upon their installation, the DDC construction supervisor pronounced them “too nice.”

In likening the urban genealogy of his prototype to “brownstone Brooklyn,” which is the current neighborhood of choice among New Yorkers, Garrison suggests that the city that could be built from these modules is the model of an everyday urbanism that the Department of City Planning would certainly embrace but that those who want interim housing distinguished as temporary would most likely judge as also “too nice.” In fact, construction of just three units has revealed the daunting complexity that would be involved in engaging multiple suppliers in the production of tens of thousands of units, in the selection and preparation of sites that would need to occur in advance of their arrival, and in the many different urban models that would need to be developed in relation to those sites. Many infrastructural issues were not considered in the prototype such as the potential need for off the grid power and water, although Garrison and City Planning have both proposed including modules dedicated to temporary services, as well as the de rigeur solar panels and cisterns. Using the waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook Brooklyn as a testing ground, and Garrisons’ design as the basic housing element, OEM asked Gans studio and students from Pratt to find possible interim housing sites, develop urban morphologies from the modules, and investigate the larger social cost-benefits to this mass sheltering-in-place. Unhampered by the need to realistically negotiate among multiple governmental agencies, acquire land, or dig down to find what would be in the way of footings, these studies illustrate courtyards and superblocks, housing on piers and on rooftops, in other words a rich lexicon of urban possibilities with public space, shared landscapes and many amenities that this modular, affordable housing could provide for an interim……and, perhaps… “what if…..?”…. a lasting imagined future.

Article by Deborah Gans, FAIA