Possible homes for those recovering from Dorian?

George Bolter, left, and his parents walk through the remains of his home destroyed by Hurricane Dorian in the Pine Bay neighborhood of Freeport, Bahamas, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. Photo: Associated Press 

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

George Bolter, left, and his parents walk through the remains of his home destroyed by Hurricane Dorian in the Pine Bay neighborhood of Freeport, Bahamas, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. Photo: Associated Press 

Possible homes for those recovering from Dorian?

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
School of Architecture associate professor Sonia Chao and her team have created building kits that would help storm victims in the Bahamas convert shipping containers into alternative housing units.

They are the Caribbean’s newest homeless, left without a place to live after Hurricane Dorian reduced their dwellings to piles of wood and other debris. 

“There’s nothing left” has become their all-too familiar lament. 

But it’s not that the residents of Grand Bahama and Abaco Islands didn’t put up a fight. In fact, they did, boarding up their homes and stocking supplies. 

Dorian, which made landfall as a category 5 storm, was just too powerful. By some estimates, the cyclone’s 185-mph winds damaged or destroyed some 13,000 homes in one group of islands in the Bahamas alone, creating an apocalyptic scene of disaster. 

For Sonia Chao, a research associate professor in the University of Miami School of Architecture, the initial images and video footage of Dorian’s destruction on the island nation hit too close to home. 

“They broke my heart,” she said. “The first thing that came to mind was the devastation I saw in South Dade after Hurricane Andrew.”

Chao had just returned to Miami after living in Europe for five years when Andrew hit in 1992. After she and her family repaired what minor damage had been done to their own home in Coral Gables, she volunteered in relief and recovery efforts in South Dade, assisting FEMA inspectors and insurance companies with property assessments.

“I remember talking to families who would ask me if there was anything they could salvage from their homes,” Chao said. “As an architect I knew better, but didn’t have the heart to express it in brutal terms. So I gingerly told them the reality of the situation and tried to help.” 

Now, Chao is determined to help again—this time with post-Dorian recovery efforts in the Bahamas. 

Her plan: homes for Bahamians who lost it all to Dorian. 

Through the School of Architecture-based Center for Urban and Community Design that she directs, Chao has created user-friendly building kits—simplified measured drawings any layperson can readily understand—that can help families convert shipping containers into micro-housing units. 

She actually came up with the idea two years ago, when she and her colleagues, including UM alumna Gabriella Feito, were exploring ways to provide alternative housing for storm victims post-Hurricane Irma.

Trailers that are commonly provided by FEMA to victims of natural disasters are not always cost-effective and adequate to live in, said Chao. 

“So we asked ourselves, ‘What’s a good way to get something to the Caribbean that would allow people to create small businesses locally as they rebuild but could also be a skeleton that would be readily available for housing?’” Chao said. “And the first thing that came to mind was shipping containers, which are all over the place.” 

Shipping container repurposed as apartment-style housing.Indeed, harbor districts across the world are filled with empty shipping containers, which typically carry cargo only one way. Many of the containers, once their cargo has been unloaded, sit unused in ports or are stripped and melted down for scrap.

“Instead of being something that’s dumped on the side of a road or stashed on a long port, we should be recycling them and using them for a constructive purpose,” Chao said.

The containers are composed of corrugated sheet panels made of corrosive resistant high-strength steel that are welded to a steel frame. “They’re really sturdy by default—that is why we can stack multiple containers on top of each other,” said Landolf Rhode-Barbarigos, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering’s Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering. 

He is partnering with Chao on the project, evaluating the structural capacity of containers to ensure that the modifications they propose for their use as building blocks do not put their structural integrity at risk. 

“Although removing part of their structure reduces their structural capacity, if done properly—for example, with the right design considerations—this does not lead to structural issues maintaining their large structural capacity,” he explained. 

The building kits they have created include 3-D images showing different options of how shipping containers can be modified into alternative housing units, from single-family dwellings to multiple-story structures.

Initially, Chao and her team had planned to distribute the kits to their contacts at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but after Dorian battered the Bahamas, they realized the critical need to get the kits into the hands of families in the storm-ravaged island nation.

Her team’s next step: Identify government and nonprofit partners in the U.S. and in the Bahamas to make that happen.

Chao, the co-principal investigator on University of Miami U-LINK and National Science Foundation grants examining ways to enhance coastal resiliency through design, said Dorian should serve as “a wake-up call for all of us living in coastal regions that climate changes are increasingly resulting in more frequent and potentially stronger extreme weather events.”

“And,” she added, “we should listen to those calls sooner rather than later.”