UMass Amherst Engineering Students Aim to Replace FEMA Trailers with Emergency Housing That Feels Like Home

AMHERST, Mass. – Emergency housing structures that could serve as temporary homes for people displaced by hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters are being designed by University of Massachusetts Amherst students as part of the “Senior Civil Engineering Construction Methods” course. The goal of the project is to design structures that could serve as homey replacements for the utilitarian and nondescript FEMA trailers. Nineteen students from the department of civil and environmental engineering make up the four teams participating in the project.

“The challenge for the students is to have it feel like a home,” says Alan Lutenegger, the civil and environmental engineering professor who conceived the project for his course. “It might almost have the feel of a small cabin,” he says. The project has received some outside interest from the building industry and could ultimately yield a marketable prototype.

Lutenegger was inspired to create humanitarian habitats after watching a TV show on disaster relief that pictured refugees being housed for long periods of time in trailer parks.

“I saw all these FEMA trailers,” he recalls, “and I thought to myself, ‘First of all, these people have essentially lost everything they own, and now we’re going to stick them in a metal trailer. What an insult to their dignity.’ So instead why not give them something that, for all intents and purposes, looks like the kind of house they’re used to? We want them to feel good about themselves and feel as if they’re valued individuals while they’re waiting for permanent housing.”

Instead of squeezing people into a 240-square-foot FEMA trailer, these designs will create up to 500 square feet of usable living space – either in one, one-and-a-half or two stories. They will be designed to house four people for no more than a 24-month occupancy, says Lutenegger. When permanent housing is ready, the design of the structure will allow it to be quickly disassembled and moved to the next disaster area.

“The idea of the shelter is to bring a prefab structure on site; assemble it as quickly as possible; make it weather-tight; and bolt it to an instant foundation, the kind of temporary, secure, prefabricated foundation that can be bought off the shelf,” he says.

The four teams are each working on a different type of construction: traditional “stick built” wood frame, timber frame, engineered lumber, and metal frame. Every design must include bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living-room space, and each team must create its design with an emphasis on economy, sustainability and speed of assembly (students are allowed a maximum of five days, hopefully much shorter, for the construction on site).

The student designs for these emergency houses may allow them to be prefabricated in two halves in a factory or other enclosed facility and then shipped to disaster sites by tractor-trailer and bolted together onto a prefab “instant foundation” composed of metal screw piles that simply screw into the ground at the site. The use of the screw-pile foundation will allow a safe foundation to be constructed in one day and will also allow the foundation to be unscrewed and taken to the next site where the houses are needed.

A committee of judges from academia and industry will review the designs and choose the best of the four designs during a competition at the end of the current semester. Meanwhile, each student team will have to create a floor plan, a materials list, a detailed summary of material costs, an estimate of labor costs, a list of equipment for the site work and an estimate of construction costs. In many respects, these structures will likely be safer than a traditional wood frame house.

And the assignment is not just an academic exercise. The whole idea is to apply these designs to the real world, says Lutenegger.

“I’m working with a builder right now who seems to be very excited about the project, especially the timber framing aspect of it,” he says. “That company has expressed a willingness to perhaps assist us in building a prototype. If we have something that is very viable, economical, works well and is reusable, I’d like to take it to the next step and see if we can actually build one of the foundations and houses here on campus. Believe me, there will be a need for these emergency houses during the next major disaster, which won’t be long.”