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The Impact of Katrina

The results of the Mississippi Renewal Forum may affect the future of American architecture.

By Stephen A. Mouzon, AIA, CNU, LEED

It sounds preposterous at first to suggest that the greatest natural disaster in American history might have profoundly positive effects on the future architecture of the region and beyond. Yet that appears to be exactly what is happening. Change is occurring in several arenas, and in every case, it can be traced back to an unprecedented planning event last fall in Mississippi.

The Mississippi Renewal Forum was the largest detailed planning event in human history (see Period Homes, January 2006, p.184). Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of DPZ & Company and John Norquist of the Congress for the New Urbanism orchestrated an unprecedented 200-person design team composed of approximately 130 New Urbanists plus 70 local planners and architects. Over the course of one week in mid-October, they redesigned all 11 municipalities on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Fifty thousand homes had been utterly destroyed, with another 80,000 heavily damaged. The tax bases of several of the towns were gone, as were the municipal facilities of some. To outsiders, tackling a task so immense in so short a time seemed like lunacy. But less than six weeks after the charrette, the participants gave their report to the Governor. Some of the initiatives they set in motion are as follows.

Great town plans are incomplete without a code to flesh them out. Form-based codes are replacing use-based zoning in America, and with good reason. Conventional zoning codes, while pretending not to prefer one physical form over another, are actually responsible for the sprawl that has been eating up American cities and towns for more than half a century, including the towns of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Form-based codes cut through all the pretense and get right to the issue of defining what form the thoroughfares, blocks and buildings will take. By making the form of buildings behave properly so that they are good neighbors, the use of each building becomes much less important.

Duany’s SmartCode is the preeminent form-based code today. Prior to the Mississippi Renewal Forum it had been implemented in a growing number of locations around the country, but never across an entire region. It now appears that most of the 11 coastal municipalities may enact customized versions of the SmartCode in the near future. Doing so will not only make the Gulf Coast America’s largest showcase of form-based coding, but it is already providing impetus to other municipalities in the region to do their own SmartCodes.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers almost always overstay their welcome. There are still FEMA trailers being occupied in Homestead, FL, from Hurricane Andrew more than 15 years ago. It is possible that a child may be born, grow up and graduate from high school, all while living in a FEMA trailer.

New Urbanists insist on discarding the charade of "temporary housing." If much of the housing is likely to be there for most of someone’s childhood, then it should be worthy of setting the stage for a young life. Why not, they ask, design units with every bit of the care of full-size houses and build them of decent materials, too? Before, during and after the charrette, New Urbanists designed dozens of the units, which have been dubbed Katrina Cottages. Several of them already have working drawings, and three dozen or so of them will be included in a plan book published by the New Urban Guild later this year.

The Katrina Cottages got a huge boost in December, when outdoor exhibit space unexpectedly became available at the International Builders’ Show in Orlando, FL. Marianne Cusato’s Katrina Cottage I was built in Jackson, MS, and endured 12 hours of Category 2 hurricane force winds on the way to the show by traveling 70 mph with a 20 mph headwind most of the way without even popping a single sheetrock nail. Once it arrived, this little "cottage that you wanted to hug" stole the show. By day, it was thronged with visitors and press. The porch benches were clearly the coolest place at the show to hang out. And long after the rest of the cavernous convention center had been deserted, people were still sitting there, doing what comes naturally on a porch: connecting with one another.

The Katrina Cottage exhibit had more stories to tell than just FEMA trailer replacement. Because they fit the form factor of manufactured housing, these cottages could be manufactured and shipped to their destination complete.

To date, the track record of design quality of manufactured housing has been abysmal. Ask anyone outside the industry what they think of the beauty of trailers or mobile homes, and they’ll probably look at you like you’re half crazy. But it isn’t the manufacturing process that has been failing us. Modern society manufactures automobiles, computers and jet airplanes. What has failed to date has been the design, and the failure has been so complete that even with huge improvements in quality of construction in recent years in the manufactured-home industry, the public perception has been so negative that most cities will not allow mobile homes to cross the city limit line.

The Katrina Cottages are poised to change all that. It’s not a one-sided change. The manufactured-housing industry obviously needs a public perception makeover, but the New Urbanism also needs smaller, highly affordable units. There are efforts in the works to streamline the process. The New Urban Guild’s Manufactured Architecture program, for example, connects manufacturers with great architects and designers, then oversees a process that includes having the architect approve the manufacturer’s shop drawings, and then go to the factory to work out remaining issues on a completed prototype. Other groups may initiate similar programs.

The other big story told by the Katrina Cottage exhibit was the redefinition of "decent housing" in America. For decades, because they are based only on square footage and minimum dimensions, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and Veteran Administration (VA) "decent housing" rules have required houses to be bigger even if they have to be stupid. But why can’t they be smaller and smarter? Hundreds of exhibit visitors were asked, while walking through the Cottage, "What is indecent about this?" Because depending on which doors you hung, this Cottage violated most of the FHA and VA rules. Most exhibit-goers responded by saying: "This is so much better than decent that I want one; to whom should I write my check?"

But why does it really matter? Didn’t the convention visitors want this cottage for hunting cabins, mountain retreats and other recreational or leisure uses? Yes, they did. But what about people who need affordable housing? At $25,000 to $35,000 excluding foundation or land cost, it is possible in many places at today’s interest rates for someone to live in a Katrina Cottage on a single minimum-wage income. This has long been considered impossible, but if these Cottages succeed in redefining "decent housing," then such a goal is achievable.

The Wal-Mart story has not totally played out, so some might consider it premature. But it is so important that people need to know what is happening. Prior to the charrette, Wal-Mart buildings and the system that created them were considered incorrigible by many New Urbanists. Because they had a store in Pass Christian that was going to be rebuilt, the New Urbanists invited Wal-Mart executives and designers to the charrette. It’s not clear exactly what happened, because the company had consistently squashed any previous effort to redefine the look of their stores. But they had always been dealing with a single architect or planner. So maybe it had something to do with walking into a cavernous room filled with more than 100 of the best architects and planners in the country, including some of the most famous. In any case, they listened. The New Urbanists described big-box stores wrapped with liner buildings populated by other merchants, and with loft apartments above so that it looks like a proper Main Street block of buildings. The store would be embedded in the urban fabric rather than being set off in a field with the surrounding sea of parking, which would allow hundreds of people in the closest units (many of whom might be employees) to walk to the store. Follow-up talks with Wal-Mart are proceeding, and there is the possibility that this type of store might actually become a prototype for their future stores.

Casino buildings have long been similar to Wal-Marts: big boxes separated from any surrounding urbanism by large swaths of parking. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Charrette designers illustrated casino buildings like the great ones on the French Riviera that engage the street to become a part of the fabric of the town. Some of the Gulf Coast casinos are considering changing their model for any new construction.

The previous two possibilities are just that: possibilities. But the Vernacular of Necessity is certain. The greatest town fabric in history (like that of an Italian hilltown, or an English village) usually was built by townspeople, not great designers. Their charm results primarily from the organic character that occurs when each person builds the same pattern a little differently: there is great variety within a very narrow range.

Because the need in the Katrina-ravaged areas is so great, no single house-delivery method will be able to meet the need. It is quite likely that many people will choose to rebuild their own houses. As a result of having more hands (and minds) at work, it is highly likely that a new vernacular living tradition will emerge along the Gulf Coast. Watch this one carefully – and it won’t be just the readers of Period Homes that are watching. The media is watching like never before. The national coverage by major media outlets began just before the charrette, and shows no signs of subsiding. As a matter of fact, the Katrina rebuilding efforts are turning the New Urbanism into the next big long-running story. Stay tuned...  

 


Stephen A. Mouzon, AIA, CNU, LEED, is an architect based in Miami Beach, FL. He is also the director of design for PlaceMakers, LLC.

 

 
 

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