By Elke Weesjes

In a world where about 60 million people are currently displaced by man-made and natural disasters, the need for semi-permanent housing has never been greater. In recent years engineers and designers have come up with interesting and innovative designs for transitional shelter, but very few make it beyond the prototype phase.

Among the reasons for this are the many criteria temporary homes must meet—they need to be affordable, quick to assemble, suitable for urban and rural environments, culturally appropriate, and disaster resistant. Most designs fail the first two criteria.

Still, progress is being made. In Europe—where countries are scrambling to find housing for hundreds of thousands of refugees who are pouring across their borders—converted shipping containers have eased the housing crisis. This cost effective concept might well inspire the Federal Emergency Management Agency—no stranger to the problems surrounding suitable and safe semi-permanent housing—to follow suit.

Since being publicly scrutinized for housing hurricane survivors in cramped and toxic trailers, FEMA has been looking for better disaster housing alternatives. In 2006, it launched the $400 million Alternative Housing Pilot Program that funded four projects in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.

Though the grants resulted in more than 3,700 units of semi-permanent housing, none of the projects were very successful. Project completion was often delayed and the costs were much higher than expected. In the case of the Texas project, state officials terminated the $16.5 million effort after giving the developer—who only delivered six homes—more than $5.5 million.

Important lessons were learned about what not to do, but the way to move forward wasn’t as clear. After Superstorm Sandy, the State of New Jersey used prefabricated homes to house survivors, but the supply did not meet the demand. In New York City, FEMA relied on the NYC Rapid Repairs program to quickly restore heat, power, and fix other issues that made homes unlivable. Although the effort was successful, it didn’t entirely eliminate the need for temporary housing.

When it comes to transitional shelter, cities like New York, London, Berlin, and Amsterdam all struggle with the same problem—there are too many people and not enough space. That’s why the converted shipping container solution—which stacks easily to make use of vertical space—is more viable than most.

It is not a novel idea. In 2006, Amsterdam built a student village—the largest development of its kind—using 1,000 shipping containers that were fitted with windows, bathrooms, and other installations to serve as inexpensive temporary housing. The architect of the village, Quinten de Gooijer, is convinced that using shipping containers will be the future for cost-effective housing.

“We’re still trying to overcome the idea that a steel box is not a good place to live. People think bricks and mortar are eternal, but that’s not the case,” De Gooijer told The Guardian. “Gradually the psychology is changing. I think we will see many more housing projects using containers in future.”

There’s good reason for De Gooijer to think that. The low-cost, low-effort concept is now being used to house refugees in the Netherlands, as well as Finland, France, and Germany.

New York City has also jumped on the container housing wagon. With financing from FEMA, the City has developed its own urban post-disaster housing. The project, which has been in the making for eight years, unveiled its prototypes in Brooklyn in October. The stackable pods, designed by architect James Garrison, look like shipping containers from the outside but are modern and relatively spacious on the inside.

“The beauty of the units lies in their inherent flexibility, Garrison wrote in his blog. “They can be stacked like Legos to create row housing, or they can be interspersed between existing homes and structures.”

The prototype will remain in Brooklyn for one to two years for functionality testing. If FEMA endorses the blueprints, the versatile, economical units could be installed anywhere. The modules have been designed to meet the strictest zoning requirements in the United States—and they also address the fact that temporary housing often turns out to be semi-permanent.

“If you look at every single disaster, so-called temporary housing never becomes temporary,” Garrison told the New York Times. “There are people still living in buildings built after the Kobe earthquake in ’95. We wanted to make something nice that would be built to last, but you kind of have to, too, because that could just be what winds up happening.”