Katrina Cottages

01/01/2008 – Rex Perry – Cottage Living

Jasmine Henson and her neighbor Ron Craven are creating an island of sanity in a sea of destruction. A white picket fence and a border of potted flowers enclose Ron’s 240-square-foot FEMA trailer. But outside the fence, scattered debris sits on concrete slabs where cozy 1950s cottages once stood overlooking the Gulf in Long Beach, Mississippi. Like many new residents of FEMA housing, Ron and Jasmine are happy to have a roof over their heads, but some of their neighbors question how long anyone can remain positive living in a travel trailer. A group of architects and designers, empowered by recent creative gatherings called charrettes, think they have the answer. Their idea for housing on the Gulf Coast is the Katrina Cottage—a sturdy and well-designed permanent structure that can be built for the equivalent cost of a FEMA trailer.

“I wanted to create a more dignified version of the FEMA trailer,” says designer Marianne Cusato. “The Katrina Cottage shows how we can create beautiful and affordable homes that give people a place of pride.” She stands on the ramp leading to her smallest version of the cottage, on display in downtown Ocean Springs, Mississippi, while residents stop by to look inside. Marianne put her career of creating traditional homes on hold to bring beautiful design to the Katrina Cottage. “I’ve designed closets that are the size of this cottage, but my heart wasn’t in it,” says Marianne. “What I’ve always wanted to do is create a new version of the Sears, Roebuck kit home, and the time was right. How can storm victims start over if they don’t have a place to get clean and feel safe?”

The tiny cottage is just the first step for long-term housing to replace the approximately 99,000 occupied FEMA trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi. Local Ocean Springs architects Bruce Tolar and Michael LeBatard are planning a neighborhood of 17 cottages that embrace the “New Urbanist” philosophy of walkable and compact towns whose architecture fits the local vernacular. “People need something in the range of 700 to 1,200 square feet for permanent housing,” says Bruce. “The first Katrina Cottage proved we can design an affordable house with humanity—we want to build on that concept.”.

A second constructed version of a Katrina Cottage, designed during a Louisiana charrette, stands in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart Supercenter in St. Bernard Parish near New Orleans. The 610-square-foot home takes the idea of storm survivability to the next level. Even if it’s completely submerged in a flood, you simply remove any furnishings that have absorbed water, hose down the interior, and replace the electrical switches. The structure of the house, developed by Home Front Homes in Englewood, Florida, is built with panels sandwiching cement boards and polystyrene foam and can withstand 140-m.p.h. winds. The panelized construction system enabled the cottage to be built in seven days (or even fewer, eventually) for about $70,000. Todd Burns and Alice Garcia pass the model cottage every day walking from the tent they call home to an emergency kitchen nearby. “I’ll move into that house right now,” says Alice. “It had better survive a flood because we had 7 feet of water in our house for 19 days.”

“I think it’s cute,” says Parish resident Barbie Hughes as she steps into the cottage’s living room. “It has enough space to live in and it’s better than a trailer. Have you been in a FEMA trailer? It’s like living on a navy ship.”

Crooked homes, twisted by hurricane winds and floods, line Second Street running through Pass Christian, Mississippi. A single cottage under construction near the city center rises from a cleared lot. “Over 80 percent of our town was destroyed,” says Gayla Schmitt, with the local Mercy Housing and Human Development. “We’re determined that Pass Christian will come back, and that cottage is a first step. When I found out our Rotary Club was donating materials and that the Mennonite Disaster Service was volunteering labor, I bought the plans for the home with my own credit card.” The cottage, designed by South Carolina designer Eric Moser, is being built for Etta Dubuisson on the site of her former home. “We love the design because it fits in with the beautiful Creole cottages that used to be here,” says Gayla. “We’re hoping for more, but we don’t have the labor force to build right now.”

“The coast is going to be rebuilt in a new way,” says Michael LeBatard. “We can create smarter and more beautiful homes like these cottages, or we can rebuild it again.”

“FEMA trailers are ugly; they’re high-maintenance; they’re not safe to occupy in high winds, “They’re not a good solution to rebuilding efforts because people have to be housed in them sometimes through several hurricane seasons. It’s not acceptable, in our mind, that you have a building you have to abandon after you’ve already abandoned your house.”

The Katrina Cottage and Katrina Cottage II were the result of a one-week brainstorming session by architects and planners who participated in the Mississippi Renewal Forum after Hurricane Katrina. Andres Duany, the well-known “New Urbanist” architect and planner, led that effort; New York architect Marianne Cusato designed the first Katrina Cottage in the vernacular style of the Mississippi coast.

The larger Katrina Cottage II was designed by Steve Oubre, Duany and others, and built by Bishop’s company in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Chalmette, La. The version that will be unveiled in Englewood on Sunday is a Florida cracker design by Duany.

“We’re building this cottage in Florida for people who couldn’t travel to Mississippi or New Orleans to see the other buildings,” said Bishop. “These are intended to be seed houses that grow as needed, or they can be set on the property as an emergency dwelling until your home is repaired or replaced.”

What all the cottages have in common is that they are hurricane-resistant and “green,” meaning they are energy-efficient, resource-conserving and sustainable. The main construction material is Home Front’s highly energy-efficient and wind-resistant wall panel — two sheets of fiber-cement Hardipanel from James Hardie Siding Products, sandwiched around a foam core. Plans are available from Home Front Homes for $500, said Bishop. He said the complete cottage costs $70,000 or less, depending on interior appointments, but the “shell” is much less.

The concept is time-tested. Following the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, 6,000 cottages were built as emergency housing and adapted for permanent use, author Witold Rybczynski pointed out in the online magazine Slate.

“The aim was to provide refugees with something better than the Army tents they had been using,” wrote Rybczynski. “The cottages were occupied for a year while the devastated city was cleaned up. But when people started to rebuild, they transported the huts to their lots and incorporated them into the new homes. Some of these original cottages still exist today.”

During Sunday’s event, architect Robert Andrys, past president of the Florida Green Building Coalition, and Duany will speak about sustainable construction. Also, Sister Cathy Buster, vice president of Catholic Charities Housing, will speak.