After working in private practice for nine years, architect Michael A. Berk shifted gears in 1990 to become a professor and researcher. His new pursuit ultimately led him to explore affordable and ecologically based factory-built housing in the rural Southeast and Delta regions, where the dynamics of poverty differ from those seen in urban centers. “In the Delta, most people still own acres of land, but they may be poor,” says Berk, a professor and senior faculty member in the School of Architecture at Mississippi State University. “I'm trying to propose a sustainable alternative to the [mobile home].” But when Katrina hit, Berk saw another need: disaster relief and emergency housing.

Using his research findings, Berk designed GreenMobile, a housing model he believes could serve as a viable alternative to emergency travel trailers and mobile homes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) agrees with him: Last December, the agency awarded the GreenMobile project up to $5.9 million in funding in the nationally juried Alternative Housing Pilot Program for disaster-relief housing on the Gulf Coast.

Based on the economy of the single-wide mobile home, GreenMobile consists of a prefab base unit onto which pods can be added on site. “It's a hybrid building that mixes a single-wide and a modular house,” Berk says. The models, destined for use as FEMA housing, come in two versions: an 890-square-foot two-bedroom unit and a 560-square-foot one-bedroom unit.

Berk designed the buildings for off-the-grid sustainability—with solar panels and water-collection systems—so they can function in areas with no utilities. Made with structural insulated panels, GreenMobile will also capitalize on passive solar orientation and natural ventilation. Ideally, the structures would be constructed of natural materials sourced from local vendors and would come with a kit for planting deciduous shade trees to moderate the Mississippi Delta swelter.

One of the ancillary benefits of GreenMobile, Berk says, is that it's a multipurpose model: “It could stand alone as emergency housing, but then it could have a life after,” he says. It could be used as affordable housing for the underserved, he adds, and “it would be better-looking than a single-wide.”

Although cost has not been finalized, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency aims to produce 100 of the small units for $50,000 each. It hopes to pin down the design and engineering details soon and would begin construction shortly thereafter.