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The house that Katrina built

A little yellow cottage with a tin roof - a hit at the recent International Builders' Show - may be the future of emergency housing.

Published January 28, 2006

[Photos: Sandy Sorlien]
The Katrina Cottage is 14 by 22 feet plus an 8-foot-deep porch with bench seating. It’s the same size and price as a temporary FEMA trailer but offers permanent housing, dignity and the possibility of adding on later.

The home’s main living area offers seating and dining space. The kitchen is to the right just inside the entrance.

The bunk-bed mattresses hide storage space.

ORLANDO - The show house everyone was talking about at the recent International Builders' Show wasn't the biggest, fanciest or most expensive. But the 308-square-foot house may change the way the United States deals with emergency housing and affordable housing.

The yellow cottage with a tin roof is exactly the size of the temporary trailers the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides to victims of hurricanes and other disasters, and it costs about the same: less than $35,000.

But where a FEMA trailer looks grim and dispiriting - who wants to live next to one, let alone in one? - this house, known as the Katrina Cottage, is airy, bright and charming.

"I'm designing affordable housing," said Marianne Cusato, 31, the architect who designed the cottage. But developers who toured it, she said, were telling her they want to use the plans for upscale beach cottages or mountain resorts.

The design is one of the products of a one-week session, the Mississippi Renewal Forum, held on that state's coast in October. About 110 architects, planners and designers converged with 80 of their local counterparts at the request of Gov. Haley Barbour to come up with ideas to redevelop 11 small coastal communities that were severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Fifty-thousand homes were obliterated and 80,000 were damaged along a 120-mile stretch of the Mississippi coast.

The team produced a foot-high stack of reports and a pattern book of designs to guide the rebuilding of communities, neighborhoods and individual homes. The pattern book draws on the original architecture and design detail of the area.

Here was the governor's challenge, said Andres Duany, the Miami architect who is a leader in traditional neighborhood design: "Bring it back better." He explained: "If these communities are ever going to be spiritually whole, they can't be pining about their past, always saying, "It was better before Katrina.' The only way to renew these communities is for them to be better than before."

So the idea is to rebuild communities where high-rises don't wall off the beach and where major highways don't slash through downtown. Make them walkable. Provide public transportation. Encourage local retail but find a way to accommodate the big-box chains. Support economic diversity.

And build community, with little touches like the front porch on the Katrina Cottage, where people sat and talked virtually nonstop during the four-day builders' convention.

The Katrina Cottage was built in just 20 days and trucked to the site, Cusato said. This one was frame construction, but it could be built as a modular home or with panelized construction. The idea was to offer something versatile, flexible and affordable and to interest manufacturers in reproducing the house.

"The only reason not to do this is that it's not the current conventional practice," said Cusato, a Notre Dame graduate who has just opened her own practice in New York. "But we can do this. Sometimes it takes a major event to change things, make us recalibrate."

At first, she acknowledged, "I didn't get it. Then I realized: Hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, this year and every year." There will always be a need for emergency housing somewhere, for some reason.

The cottage, which draws on the design of a Mississippi coastal cottage, is 14 by 22 feet plus an 8-foot-deep porch. Inside the front door is a living/dining area; to the right, a small kitchen with a four-burner range and a full-size refrigerator, sink, and cabinets. Beside it is a full bath. At the back of the house is a bedroom with two sets of bunk beds. There's storage space under the mattresses, and there is one closet. The house has central air and heat. It is sided in Hardieboard, a fiber-cement product, and topped with a metal roof.

"Design matters," Cusato said, pointing to the well-proportioned six-over-six windows, the slope of the roof, the size of the porch.

Architects' sketches on the wall show how the cottage can be expanded and enlarged as need and money permit. The session generated a dozen or more plans for modestly priced housing in addition to Cusato's design.

Beyond speed of construction and permanence, Cusato said, is the dignity factor: giving disaster victims a permanent, attractive place to live that respects them and supports their desire to get back to a normal life.

Pushing that envelope will take some work. FEMA, for example, is not chartered to provide permanent housing, so its mandate would have to be changed.

Duany hopes to encourage good design in Mississippi according to the principles developed by the forum by telling developers and builders: "We'll give you a straight pipeline" - hand-carry you through codes, insurance, FEMA, mortgages - "if you do it well and follow our plans." But understand that "everything has to be this nice," he said, gesturing to the Katrina Cottage. Come in planning to throw up cheap, ugly housing, and the way will be a lot tougher.

"This is 120 miles of really valuable real estate," Duany said of the Mississippi gulf coast. "It's hard to keep people out. You can't say, "You can't build there.' But we don't have to build back as badly as we have in the last 20 years, with neighborhoods dismantled or the DOT building highways that ream out neighborhoods."

The Katrina Cottage lends itself to a variety of uses: housing for emergency workers, Habitat for Humanity housing, student housing, guest or in-law quarters. The design team said it got good feedback and interest from builders and the manufactured-home industry at the builders' show, but the proof will come if anyone wants to put the cottage into large-scale production.

Said Cusato: "The story here isn't that a few people built a cute house that a lot of people want to hug, but that we're going to change the way we deal with emergency and affordable housing throughout the United States."

- For more images of the Katrina Cottage and information about the Mississippi Renewal Forum, visit

[Last modified January 27, 2006, 11:34:03]

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