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All Things Considered

A young designer redefines affordable housing.
By Will Holloway

"To build a fine traditional house isn't that much more of an effort than to make a mess of it," writes architect Léon Krier in the preface to Get Your House Right: Architectural Elements to Use & Avoid, designer Marianne Cusato's forthcoming guide to creating a well-designed building. "It requires, more than anything, aesthetic sense, knowledge, judgment, and a passion for joining materials into meaningful forms that bring true and daily enjoyment to those who look at them, use them, and live in them."

Terms like "aesthetic sense," "knowledge," "judgment" and "passion" seem particularly appropriate attached to an undertaking of Cusato's. Get Your House Right, written along with designer Ben Pentreath and with contributions from Krier, architect Richard Sammons and H.R.H. The Prince of Wales, is the product of Cusato's lifelong interest in architecture, her Classical education and 10 years of practice – from Grenfell Architecture and Fairfax & Sammons to her current capacity as principal of Marianne Cusato Associates and Cusato Cottages, LLC, in New York City. Cusato also has another book on the horizon; The Value of Design, in association with James Hardie Building Products, will examine the economic and quality-of-life impacts of well-designed streetscapes.

But it has been through the Katrina Cottage that Cusato, now 33, has risen to architectural prominence. The award-winning designs were developed by Cusato and a handful of architects and designers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as an alternative to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer. More than anything, the Katrina Cot-tage has proven that, in the era of the frivolous McMansion at the end of the cul-de-sac, the architectural profession can produce well-thought-out, affordable, safe, functional and aesthetically pleasing housing for those who need it most.

Education & Training
Marianne Cusato was born and raised in Anchorage, AK. She went to architecture school at the University of Notre Dame, where she received the Classical education that formed the foundation of her work. Lessons on the Vitruvian triad of firmness, commodity and delight, for instance, to which she thought "what am I meant do with this?" at the time, became "incredibly applicable and useful" in informing the Katrina Cottage designs.

"The classes that challenged me the most were the ones that I learned the most from," says Cusato. "[Professor] Duncan Stroik's second-year studio was a big influence – I think I learned more from that course than any other, just because it was so rigorous and he wouldn't settle for anything but the best we could do, and exposed us to so much in the process."

After graduating in 1997, Cusato moved to Charlotte, NC, to work for Grenfell Architecture. She notes that this was a pivotal time for her because the "light bulb went on" with the opportunity to apply pedagogical theory to real-world projects, which included both high-end residences and New Urbanist developments. "We worked at the scale of the city, but also designed custom millwork," says Cusato. "I really enjoyed not focusing on a single aspect of design – being able to use the exact same principles from day to day while shifting the focus between projects of varied scales."

Working on New Urbanist developments such as I'On in Mt. Pleasant, SC, and Mt. Laurel in Birmingham, AL, Cusato routinely collaborated with the Charlotte office of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company. This enabled Cusato to work closely with DPZ principal Andrés Duany, who would eventually play a major role in her career.

In 1999, Cusato moved to New York City and joined the office of Fairfax & Sammons. "I wanted to experience the city, so I looked into all of the firms there and Fairfax & Sammons was my first choice because of the high-style projects they were doing," she says. "I've always known that urbanism is where my heart is, but the high-end work was important for me to inform the work that I eventually wanted to do. I felt it was crucial to be able to work with big budgets and without limits in terms of design, then take those lessons and apply them to projects where there isn't as much budget.

"Working for Fairfax & Sammons was an amazing experience, but to have my own take on all of that and apply it back into affordable and more modest market-rate housing was always the goal. What I realized was that I was getting an ulcer over things like bathrooms and closets, so I figured if I was going to get an ulcer, I at least wanted to do something that more than 10 people would ever see – that I should put my ulcer to good work."

Pre-Katrina
Get Your House Right began with a pile of sketches that Leon Krier sent to Andrés Duany, saying, "Wouldn't it be funny if we cataloged all of the bad things that happen?" During a charrette, Duany handed them to Cusato and asked her to draw up a bunch of mistakes and send them to Krier – and one thing led to the next. It was also the type of guide Cusato had looked for when she first started out at Grenfell Architecture and could not find. "I kept looking for the book that was going to show me how to do everything," she says. "How do you size a cornice? How deep does an eave return go? What are the rules of thumb for all of these things?" The premise was to compare and contrast common mistakes with good designs to educate the eye to see the difference and therefore not make the same mistakes.

"I knew it needed to be done, because I needed it and I also saw that developers needed it," says Cusato. "In all of these new developments, the master plan is beautiful, but when it comes up out of the ground, the first thing that everyone says is, ‘Oh, it's Disneyland,' ‘It's a cartoon' or ‘You can't build like you used to.' We've heard all of those things, and really it's just because we've lost the ability to speak the language. This is what we talk about early in the book – that architecture is a language. We all know the vocabulary – the windows, the doors, the dormers – but we've forgotten the grammar. So we apply the sentences, with moldings that are literally just put on gratuitously, dormers that have no relation to anything else and so on. So this book seeks to restore the grammar that goes along with the language."

Marianne Cusato Associates was launched in 2005. Her first priority was finishing Get Your House Right, which includes about 1,000 of her drawings. That year she also became involved in the debate over the Alaska State Capitol. When the city of Juneau held a design competition to replace its nondescript and deteriorating 1931 statehouse, the winning entry was a decidedly non-traditional form from Santa Monica, CA-based Morphosis. Many Alaskans were underwhelmed by the design. In response, and to make the point that Alaska could have a capitol that looks like a capitol, Cusato designed a traditionally inspired counter-proposal that caught on with those opposed to the Morphosis design. The Morphosis design was called off and the project is currently on hold.

"The process shows a little bit of a failure of the architectural profession, because they looked for the best-of-the-best, and they got the award-winning best-of-the best," says Cusato. "The results of that were repellant to the people of the state. The fascinating thing is that there is a lot of Modern architecture that is celebrated up in Alaska, but when it came to the capitol, it really freaked them out."

The Katrina Cottage
Cusato's career path took a sudden turn in the fall of 2005 when Duany sent an e-mail to the architects and designers who would be convening at the Mississippi Renewal Forum requesting they come with drawings of alternatives to the FEMA trailer. It was an opportunity for Cusato to combine what she had learned at Notre Dame, Grenfell Architecture and Fairfax & Sammons with her passion for affordable housing. "From the moment I read that e-mail, I just knew, I thought ‘this is it!' she says. "I've always thought that there is no reason why the affordable housing that is out there is so awful – there's no reason that it has to be that way. It's just because the same design energy that is being put into million dollar homes hasn't been put into affordable housing."

Because she had been traveling a lot, Cusato didn't have time to come up with any plans; she showed up in Biloxi empty-handed. "I was a little upset at myself for not having any designs," she says. "And then on the first day, while we were sitting there listening to the governor, Ben [Pentreath] sketched one up, and I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? If Ben can do it, so can I.'" Cusato's initial sketch looked very much like the 308-sq.ft. design that would become the archetype of the Katrina Cottage program – the design that would go on to win the 2006 People's Design Award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum; the design that would in part lead to Congress appropriating $400-million for developing alternatives to the FEMA trailer; the design that would lead to a number of Katrina Cottages being available as material packages from the home improvement store Lowe's; and the design that would lead to Cusato being named the fourth most influential person in the building industry by Builder magazine in 2006.

"FEMA trailers are between 200 and 400 sq.ft.," says Cusato, "so I designed it to be 300 sq.ft. just to prove that size has nothing to do with it – you can still have something that looks nice, still feels nice and lives nice. In addition, it needed to be affordable and safe and it needed to be able to be built quickly.

"It all goes back to my first lessons at Notre Dame about Vitruvius and the idea of firmness, commodity and delight. You can always get two out of those three: it can always be affordable and functional, but it's not going to look nice; or you can have it look great and be functional, but it's going to be really expensive; or you can have it look great and be affordable, but it's going to blow away in the next storm. So the real challenge with this, as we've shifted into Lowe's and really making them a reality, has been coming up with the balancing act."

Katrina Cottage (KC) material packages from Lowe's currently include Cusato's KC 544 (sq.ft.) and KC 936, DPZ's KC 612 and Beaufort, SC-based Eric Moser's KC 697. The KC 612 and KC 936 are "grow houses," meaning they are designed to easily accommodate future additions that could make them permanent residences. Materials include 140-mph-wind-gust-rated HardiePlank lap siding, wood framing, mold- and mildew-resistant interior wallboard and galvalume metal roofs. Plans available from Lowe's include 10 models ranging from the original KC 308 to the KC 1800.

In September 2007, the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency approved the construction of several hundred Katrina Cottages and the related DPZ-designed Carpet Cottages as part of FEMA's Alternative Housing Pilot Program. Ranging in size from 612 to 1,112 sq.ft., the cottages will be constructed in three Louisiana locations – Lake Charles, Baton Rouge and New Orleans. "We're doing larger houses that are three bedroom/ three bath that are really no longer for emergency housing, but the transition," says Cusato. "There is a program where people can live in them for two years and then rent to own, or they can transition and someone else can move into them."

In this sense, the Katrina Cottage seeks to strike a balance between short-term and long-term housing needs. The first priority was immediate, emergency need, but Cusato envisions the cottages as assets that people will want to maintain over time. As viable long-term housing options, Cusato sees a parallel between the cottages and the "not so big" movement championed by Sarah Susanka. Cusato points out that the average family size is getting smaller while the houses are getting bigger – that only 25 percent of houses are occupied by parents with two children. "The largest demographic is the baby boomers," she says, "There are 78 million of them that will be 65 in the next 10 years. They are now looking more towards smaller houses that are easier to maintain. They want to travel more and don't need these giant houses. So there is a huge demand for smaller houses in connected neighborhoods where people can walk to meet their daily needs."

Post-Katrina
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Katrina Cottage, Cusato recently designed a 100,000-sq.ft. retirement residence for Niagara-on-the-Lake, a DPZ-master-planned New Urbanist development in Ontario, Canada. While it would seem that such a large structure would demand a completely different mindset from the diminutive Katrina Cottage, Cusato points out that the design process is similar because both are based on the same principles of traditional architecture. "The difficult thing about a building like this is not putting too much into it," she says. "It is a big building. A small building and a big building should just be what they are. You have to design the building that you are designing – don't apologize for it. It's a big building, so I said, ‘Okay, I'm going to make a big statement.'"

Tucked into the urbanism of the development, the asymmetrical structure terminates vistas in a few directions – one corner leads to the downtown area and another leads to a pedestrian walk to a park. At the rear, a U-shaped courtyard overlooks a vineyard. Cusato has also designed a townhouse block in the development.

From large-scale New Urbanist projects to the Katrina Cottage and Get Your House Right and The Value of Design, Cusato says she has been fortunate to have "a layering of practice and theory" in her career. In both books, she uses an illustration entitled "What You Need to Think About." It shows a spectrum with "the world" on one end and "the details" on the other; in between are "the town," "the lot," "the house" and "a window." The point is that everything needs to be considered.

Increasingly, environmental concerns are taking precedence. "The next 10 to 15 years are going to be interesting," says Cusato. "Ideas like the Katrina Cottage and traditional urbanism are going to become more mainstream as we continue to look at all of these environmental issues. When we look at the global implications of the fact that the average American spends hours in a car every that, the issue is not the car, the issue is the roads the cars drive on to meet the daily needs of the people."

"All of the solutions that we're given for environmental issues are punitive," she continues. "Drive less, carpool, give up this – we have to save the world by making our lives worse. But the solutions can actually be economically beneficial and enhance our quality of life. They don't have to be punitive. They can actually be the complete opposite – you can get more, but it takes building connected communities of mixed use. That's not New Urbanism, that's just good building and good practice.

"All of these market trends are shifting towards smaller houses, like the Katrina Cottage, built in mixed-use communities like the towns that Andrés designs. Sometimes the term ‘New Urbanism' instantly comes with baggage. People have their opinions of whether it is good or it is bad, but that is just not the point. The point is that we all want to live in a nice place. We want our homes to be valuable in terms of financial in-vestment, and also in terms of the value to our quality of life and to the environment as a whole. It is our choice how we build our homes and communities. This is not about labels. This is about striving to build great places."  

 

 

 
 

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