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Architecture of Hope

Katrina Cottages provide alternatives to FEMA trailers and manufactured homes for residents of the devastated Gulf Coast.
By Hadiya Strasberg

Between August 13 and September 26, 2004, four hurricanes made landfall in Florida, displacing about 17,000 residents. About one-third of them remain in travel trailers and manufactured homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), even after the agency’s 18-month designated time allotment for residence has expired.

There is some concern that the same thing will happen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This storm, which hit the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, and the resulting flooding, damaged or destroyed some 287,800 homes, leaving an estimated one-million residents without housing. People dispersed, some settling further inland or out of state altogether. Many of those who waited out the storm or returned after the flooding subsided are forced to live in tent cities, shelters, hotels, travel trailers or manufactured homes.

Obviously, this is not a long-term solution. To help people get back into houses and back on their feet, some architects are working on better-designed manufactured and modular housing that could replace these substandard living situations.

FEMA Trailers
FEMA trailers cost almost $60,000 each, a price tag that covers the trailers themselves, moving, installation, maintenance and also their disposal or removal from the property. If the housing is vacated after a short stay, FEMA transports it to the next disaster site and reuses it.

As of mid March 2006, 51,777 FEMA travel trailers were distributed in Louisiana, and 35,037 travel trailers had been provided for families throughout the state of Mississippi. An additional 3,000 manufactured homes are on loan across the region. While these structures are providing much-needed shelter, they leave a lot to be desired when it comes to their construction quality, design, sustainability and cost.

A travel trailer is a unit that can be attached to and towed by a car or other vehicle; a manufactured home is a broader term that refers to an 8-ft. or wider residential building that is constructed in a factory, then transported to a building site and installed or assembled. While it can come in various forms, including the modular and chic prefab, the best-known model is the single-wide, flat-roofed, vinyl-sided home that FEMA distributes.

The agency has been providing travel trailers and manufactured homes to displaced residents and emergency workers as emergency housing since the 1972. It is important to note that these homes are atypical of what is being offered by the manufactured-housing industry today. "The FEMA homes are very unattractive, utilitarian homes designed to provide basic housing to disaster victims," says Chris Stinebert, president of the Manufactured Housing Institute. In the mainstream industry "in the last several years, there has been rapid growth in the aesthetic variety of manufactured housing." Stinebert is referring to two-story units, pitched roofs of up to 12:12 and ceiling heights of up to 9 ft., among other elements.

The design, strength, transportability, energy efficiency and other quality factors of manufactured homes are regulated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but this often doesn’t mean a high-quality end product, or even a decent one. The FEMA trailers are made of metal and vinyl. "The [FEMA housing] is designed to be unlivable," says Stephen A. Mouzon, principal of PlaceMakers, LLC, and the New Urban Guild, LLC, both located in Miami Beach, FL. "We’re hearing reports of trailers that aren’t put together well, on top of the fact that they’re ugly." Miami, FL-based architect Andrés Duany, of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, agrees. "[They] are hideously ugly," he says. "They cause social problems and lower real estate values."

Many residents of Louisiana tend to agree. Though tens of thousands are in need of housing, half of the state’s parishes have banned new trailer parks, citing inferior aesthetics and social implications. As of March 2006, more than 4,600 units intended for Louisiana residents were sitting unused in staging areas. This "not in my backyard" attitude, while adversely affecting mostly low-income people in dire need of housing, makes the point that the trailers have a poor image. This is not an issue in Mississippi where approximately 71%, or 25,000, of the travel trailers are on private property.

Other than their appearance, the FEMA trailers are not thoughtfully planned in terms of safety and livability. In a prepared address that Dr. Gavin Smith, director of the State of Mississippi’s Governor’s Office of Recovery and Renewal, made on the disaster recovery effort on January 17, 2006, he stated that "the use of travel trailers for long-term occupancy results in an unnecessarily high fire-hazard risk due to the fact that these units were not designed for long-term, sustained use."

A 2000 study conducted by FEMA’s Building Performance Assessment Team indicates that "no mobile home can withstand even a medium-grade tornado. Also, the frequent problems with tie-down make mobile homes more likely to be carried away by high winds or flooding."

However, Stinebert asserts that "unlike the travel trailers, FEMA’s manufactured homes must be installed to the same wind and hurricane requirements as any permanently sited home within the local jurisdiction." Stinebert maintains that this is one of the issues that frightens locals into thinking that FEMA housing can become a permanent fixture in their communities. "The simple fact that these homes were factory-built and installed to withstand the next major hurricane has concerned local jurisdictions that fear that the permanent specifications and requirements of these ‘temporary homes’ will translate into these homes remaining in their neighborhoods long after the immediate housing crisis has passed," Stinebert says.

Due to the many issues noted, the general sentiment is that "We need more practical temporary and permanent housing alternatives and the means to pay for them," says Dr. Smith.

In an effort to aid Mississippi with the enormous tasks of clearing, renovating and rebuilding, Duany and the Congress for the New Urbanism organized a charrette that would provide designs and resources for a new Gulf Coast.

At the Mississippi Renewal Forum, which convened in Biloxi on October 11-17, 2005, the architecture team designed alternatives to the FEMA trailers and manufactured housing. "Our most immediate concern was housing, particularly affordable housing that could be built on-site quickly," says participant Christine G.H. Franck, a designer from New York, NY.

The team was worried about the FEMA housing’s susceptibility to becoming permanent fixtures. "We needed to think about how we dealt at a massive scale with people having to live in temporary housing for a long period of time," says Marianne Cusato, principal of Marianne Cusato Associates and Cusato Cottages, LLC, of New York, NY.

Numerous designs were developed at the charrette and fleshed out following it. In February 2006, the New Urban Guild published a book of 18 plans, called The Katrina Emergency Plan Book. Both Gulf Coast and nationally based architects – including Cusato, Mouzon, Bill Allison, Michael Barranco, Eric Brown, Gary Justice, Alex Latham, Eric Moser, Geoffrey Mouen and Lew Oliver – contributed designs, the plans of which range from 170 to 1,200 sq.ft. The 50-page book, available on the Guild web site ( as well as in print, comes complete with FEMA construction standards and guidelines.

Not only did the architects design new affordable housing, but they redefined it. "The original concept behind the cottage designs was coming up with a more beautiful and dignified way of dealing with the FEMA trailer," explains Cusato. The Katrina Cottages are not only aesthetic alternatives to FEMA housing, but are well designed both inside and out and specified with durable and affordable materials. Even with these upgrades, the overall cost of many of the smaller cottages is comparable to the amount that FEMA is currently spending on temporary housing.

Another defining difference between the FEMA housing and the Katrina Cottages is that the latter are intended to be permanent. The idea is that the cottages can be used even after the site is cleared of debris, as a guest house, studio or office. Or they can even become part of the main house. With the Grow House, additional building sections can be added to the cottage to create a larger house. "This is actually not an unusual type of house in New Orleans, which I think is appropriate," Cusato says. Another option is the Flex House, a cottage that is built on a far side of a lot and then adapted to a guest house or studio. A third option, called the Village, uses a number of cottages clustered together. "Or the cottages can be moved to new sites or converted to rental properties," says Cusato.

Katrina Cottage plans fall into one of two categories: the Tiny House, one that is less than 500 sq.ft.; and the Thin House, which is like a shotgun house, but "includes hallways as necessary so that you never have to walk through a bedroom to get to another room, like in the old shotguns," says Mouzon. The Thin Houses range from 500 to 1,200 sq.ft.

The first of the Tiny Houses to take note of is Katrina Cottage I, a 308-sq.ft. house designed by Cusato. Not coincidentally, it is the same size as a FEMA-provided home. Jackson, MS, architect Michael Barranco of Barranco Architecture & Interior Design, who was instrumental in the planning of the Renewal Forum, provided assistance in getting Katrina Cottage I on display at the 2006 International Builders’ Show in Orlando, FL. "Two weeks before this past Christmas," he says, "I received a call from Andrés Duany, saying that we had an opportunity to build the cottage and take it to the show in Orlando and tell the whole story." It took an average of five people about 20 days to build the prototype. It was then transported from the fair grounds in Jackson to Orlando, where workers attached the roofing and the porch, which were already in their completed forms. "But that was the least efficient way to build it," Barranco attests. "It will take a lot less time and be less expensive in mass production." Katrina Cottage I is being marketed from $30,000 to $35,000, depending on the design variation. This excludes land and the foundation.

As with all of the cottages in the New Urban Guild plan book, people can purchase either the construction plans or, hopefully in the near future, a prefabricated house. The former includes the foundation, framing and floor plans with electrical elements, exterior elevations, typical wall sections and porch details. Engineering drawings and some design features such as the interior millwork details are not included. Soon, Cusato hopes to offer kits, too.

The New Urban Guild has recently started the process with manufacturers. "We connect the manufacturer with the designer," explains Mouzon. The manufacturer produces shop drawings from the design; once approved by the architect, the manufacturer will construct a prototype and the architect will come in to work out any remaining issues. "At this point, the New Urban Guild will promote them to cities," says Mouzon.

Cusato is looking for manufacturers, as well. "The goal is to sit down with these guys and make sure we’re all on the same page," says Cusato. "I don’t want to cut any corners. If we can’t get the details right, then all we’re really doing is putting out typical mobile homes, and at that point, we’ve done a complete bait-and-switch."

Cusato currently offers three variations of the Katrina Cottage, and more are in the planning stage. All three measure 14 ft. wide x 21 ft. long with a 14x8-ft. porch, but each offers different interior plans. One features a 13x14-ft. shared living room and sleeping space, a separate kitchen and a bathroom. Another has an 9x13-ft. living room, an alcove kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom. The 13x7-ft. bedroom finds room to sleep four – with bunks – and for a decent-sized closet. There is a window on either side, which helps create an open, airy feel. The third design is also a one bedroom, but only sleeps one or two, and features an open living room/kitchen. "This plan is more appropriate for a single person or a childless couple," says Cusato.

A fourth design, which is a larger version of the second design at 430 sq.ft., will be available soon. It is the same elevation, but "with some minor changes, you can have an eight-person bunk room, a two bedroom or a one bedroom," explains Cusato.

All four of Cusato’s plans feature high roof slopes, which function better in storms; extended, visible eaves; and simple porch columns. Cusato choose a standard window size with six-over-six panes, which are oversized for the cottage, but maximize the light inside. "There are several [window] configurations that work well," says Cusato. "My main preference is that they aren’t ones with glued-on muntins, but have simulated or true-divided lites." Other design features include built-in shelving and storage space under the bunk beds and porch benches, something of which Stinebert says most mobile homes have very little.

Cusato specifies two building materials for her Katrina Cottage designs: fiber-cement siding and metal roofs. "People probably don’t want to use wood; cement board is a better product for this region, because it doesn’t get eaten by termites or rot," she says. The materials are a significant factor in what separates the cottages from the trailers. "Build cheap, build twice," Cusato maintains. "If a little extra in the specifications up front means that the building has a better chance of lasting… We really need to think about that when we build in these areas of high risk."

Adoption Difficulties
Unfortunately, there are numerous obstacles standing in the way of getting the Katrina Cottages built. The smaller cottage designs violate "decent housing" laws determined by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The issue is with the sizes of the rooms, says Mouzon. "We can’t install doors at the bedroom or at the kitchen, because these spaces are too small to be considered separate rooms by the FHA. But we can work around these regulations. For example, the kitchen is often an alcove in our designs."

For FEMA, the chief issue is that the cottages are meant as permanent structures, which the agency is not chartered to provide. Mouzon says that the architects need to impress upon the FEMA officials the economic and environmental savings of the cottages. "We need the agency to make an exception or change its mandate to allow permanent structures," he says.

Cusato thinks that the first hurdle with FEMA is getting its attention. "That is the goal," she says. "We’re coming at FEMA in as many ways as possible, but right now we’re struggling with them. The mayor in Ocean Springs, MS, has gone to FEMA and requested the cottages, but they were not receptive."

Barranco’s opinion is that "FEMA is going to do what they do. That’s not to say that they will not eventually come on board and learn from this and improve their emergency housing product. But I don’t think that we can wait for them. We’ve got to lead and show that it’s a more desirable product."

As long as FEMA refuses to adopt the Katrina Cottages, the architects worry about finding other clients. "We need to start identifying the financing side, because FEMA is offering a free trailer and we’re asking people to pay for their own house while they’re paying mortgages on rubble," says Cusato.

The second issue with FEMA is working around the base flood elevation maps that, as of press time, don’t exist for these coastal neighborhoods.James McIntyre, FEMA Public Affairs, says that "people can build now to the current codes. The buildings will be grandfathered in when the new codes are finialized in late March." Barranco says that architects and developers are moving under the assumption that the agency’s preliminary elevations will most likely be adopted. "Nothing will be rebuilt in the flood zones," says Mouzon, "though the cottages could be built on property anywhere and then moved if necessary. Or you could elevate them."

One possible solution to this problem is the Gulf Opportunity (GO) Zone Act, which provides for, among other things, easier issuance of tax-exempt bonds for single-and multi-family housing projects within the hurricane-affected areas. "I think people are really pursuing the coast, primarily because of this legislation," says Barranco.

Trailer Park Substitute
FEMA trailer parks won’t be getting a makeover, but there will soon be an alternative. Barranco and architect Bruce Tolar, of Ocean Springs, are collaborating to design a cottage court, a development of Katrina Cottages that look onto a green. "We have found a piece of property in Ocean Springs and it looks like we’re going to move forward with building this court," Barranco says. "We may be able to take advantage of the GO Zone incentives to make this a reality." The court will include cottages that range in size from 300 to 800 sq.ft. "It will give people an opportunity to see multiple units, specifically how they can relate to one another and how they can vary. Because, after all, the horizontal placement is as important as the vertical architecture."

This is all well and good architecturally. But it has its social benefits, too. "If you hear of a high-density affordable housing ‘park’ coming into your neighborhood," says Cusato, "everybody is going to get upset, but if a village of cottages come in, I think people would react differently. Affordable housing doesn’t have to be horrible. If it’s something people take pride in, then they’ll also take care of it.

"In the same way that a prototype cottage triggered this [interest]," says Cusato, "a prototype village will trigger the next step…. This is just the introduction to the story. The real story is going to happen when we get these cottages down there."  



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