New York City is known for many things, but massive space isn't one of them. So when the city's Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and its Dept. of Design and Construction (DDC) set about finding an interim housing solution for urbanites displaced by disasters such as Superstorm Sandy, they came up with an idea for a three-apartment unit with about 2,106 ft of living space, which was set on an empty 96-ft by 40-ft lot in downtown Brooklyn.

Photo Courtesy of NYC Office of Emergency Management
The Next BIG IDEA? The city hopes this little unit might one day be a model for other urban regions.

The factory-built Urban Post-Disaster Housing prototype at 165 Cadman Plaza is now being tested by a rotating staff of agency employees—two at a time per week until June 2015. Their main job is to find and note any kinks in the housing system design and construction. As of early August, the biggest issue noted was that the apartment peepholes were "a little too high from a usability standpoint," says Nancy Greco, an OEM spokeswoman. Staff from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University and the Pratt Institute's Resiliency Adaptation Mitigation and Planning program will evaluate the unit further.

"The goal is to energize the AEC industry and say, 'This is what we're looking for,'" Greco says. "When something happens, we'll be looking to you guys to deploy it quickly."

If the experiment is successful, that's a mandate that can be filled. It took only a weekend last June for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—working with Garrison Architects, Brooklyn, and American Manufactured Structures and Services—to install the structure. The latter firm built the modular units at its Vienna, Va., factory.

The city will develop a design specification "for anybody who can build to that specification" for possible future use in a disaster, Greco says.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn't offer urban temporary housing for cities like New York, she says. However, the prototype could fill that void for densely packed urban areas, Greco points out. "We're hoping it will become a national model."