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Solution for a disaster? House in a box, maybe

In one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by flooding in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, developers have built a prototype house that's aimed at providing a quick housing solution for areas blown away by hurricanes and tornadoes or knocked down by earthquakes.

The dwelling in the Lakeview section of New Orleans is somewhat box-like, with a roof that slants inward and an arched structure in front that forms a covered front porch. But style isn't the purpose of the house that's meant to go up quickly after disasters and then serve as permanent housing that can withstand future calamities. It's designed to be environmentally friendly, survive outside damaged utility grids and can be shipped in pieces in a single container and assembled like an erector set.

The house is the first of its kind, but its designers believe that there could be demand for tens of thousands of them in areas around the world that need to quickly rebuild after disasters.

The arch serves as the mount for 22 solar panels and the inward-slanting roof catches rainwater, all with the goal of making the house independent of disaster-damaged electricity and water systems. Its walls are steel structural insulated panels — two sheaths of steel with a polystyrene core — best known for their use in walk-in refrigerators. The walls are erected on a system of heavy-duty tracks and supports, and tested to withstand winds of 156 miles per hour. Without wood, of course, they are quite unappealing to termites.

"This building can be put in a disaster area without infrastructure, but it is permanent and can be expanded," said Joseph Basilice, president of OceanSafe LLC, which produced the panels for the home.

After years of disasters, they believe the market is there.

"We're trying to make this a mass-production concept," said Richard Dupont, estimating manager for Woodward Design + Build, the house's construction manager. "You could sell them in onesies and twosies, but we want to sell them by the thousands."

Basilice said the durability of the steel panels already has been proven. "After Hurricane Andrew, the only thing left standing was the walk-in coolers," he said.

The house comprises about 1,100 square feet in a one-story living area featuring two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a great room and a kitchen. Its air conditioning system has individual room units with individual thermostats connected to a quiet outdoor compressor.

When it rains, water flows down the slanted roof into a 4-foot opening, collects in a cistern and then flows into a 6,000-galllon accumulation bladder. In New Orleans, rainwater can only be used for irrigation, although restrictions vary across the country, Basilice said.

Basilice said a filtration system could be used to make rainwater potable for almost any purpose.

"In many parts of the world, that's how people gather their water," said Judith Kinnard, an architecture professor at Tulane University, who, with fellow professor Tiffany Lin, designed the house. "Water is going to be an increasingly scarce resource worldwide."

The solar panels are designed to handle the house's routine power needs. It can also be fitted with a turbine to generate electricity in windy regions. The outside of the walls is composed of a cement fiberboard that resists moisture, Kinnard said.

About 14 weeks are required to put the house together, about the same time required for the building of a non-custom standard home, said C.J. Minor, co-owner of C&G Construction, which donated the land and served as general contractor.

Christophor Faust, managing partner a company called The Regen Group that specializes in green building techniques, said many ideas for the house started after Katrina when New Orleans-area builders were working with actor Brad Pitt's Make It Right rebuilding project. During that period, designers submitted entries for rebuilding houses in the city.

Faust's group lost in the finals and "after that, we decided to design a sustainable housing kit that could be shipped into a disaster area," he said.

Faust said the group also wanted to provide employment for construction craftsmen in disaster-hit areas, something that bringing in portable trailers doesn't do.

The house comes in a single container — transportable by truck, rail or ship — meets the toughest fire resistance codes and has walls that have been certified to withstand winds of up to 156 miles per hour, Faust said. Testing was performed in the "tornado cannon" at Texas Tech University.

There are only a few windows. Each is covered with a snap-on mesh that has been shown to repell a wooden plank hurled at 90 miles per hour, Basilice said.

Faust says flooding isn't a problem, either, because all of the construction material is water resistant.

The demonstration house is built one foot above the level of Katrina flooding in Lakeview. But if higher water invaded, "we'd use a pressure washer to get the mud out. Then we'd invite our neighbors over to spend the next six months."

The group has pitched the house to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and housing authorities in South Africa, Iraq, Brazil, Haiti and the Dominican Republic and is aiming to obtain a big contract later this year. In the United States, Faust said, ready-to-go housing containers could be stored at various staging points in case of disasters. Mass production would require an order of over 1,000 units, he said.

The developers aren't ready yet to say how much the house would cost. For the demo, about 60 companies provided materials, services and labor. But the design competition for the house, which Kinnard and Lin won, required that all the materials, including the energy and water system, come in at $100,000.

"It costs more upfront, but you'll save in operating costs for energy, maintenance and insurance. The thinking is that it will pay for itself," Dupont said.

Would anyone just want to have the house, disaster or not?

"It's bright and airy," said architect Kinnard. "It has pleasant lighting and good cross currents. There are a lot of people who would appreciate such a modern design."

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