Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mississippi: Future Trends

Look closely, there is a still a Katrina Cottage there

Rebuilding a bit differently. A whole new aesthetic is developing.....

I also spoke with Ben Brown, who works with Placemakers, an urban design/planning firm who has been engaged in the process in Mississippi. He described some of the challenges that are now being exposed on the gulf coast. As they have had a severe housing crisis there for the last three years, they have a jump on what the rest of the country is experiencing now. The strange thing is that while most would consider that the Katrina Cottages were only temporary housing, and then envisioned to be used as storage sheds detached from the new main house, they are now marketing them as middle class housing. Their premise is that if people still want high quality housing that has a sense of scale and style, they will have to downsize bigtime, and they think the Katrina Cottage is just the way to do that. This whole endeavor has shifted from some emergency solutions on the Gulf Coast to a new type of housing to be marketed across the country. And it just may have a chance.

Mississippi: Prefabrication?

Two different approaches, manufactured home (front) newly designed/built from GCCDS (back).

East Biloxi.

New housing in East Biloxi (designed by Marlon Blackwell in partnership with AFH and GCCDS)

One of the groups doing solid work in Mississippi is the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, working in East Biloxi, one of the hardest hit neighborhoods. It was poor and working class and New Urbanists designs had broad sweeping, new beautiful designs that would replace Vietnamese neighborhoods with new parks. They have been working closely with homeowners to design and build new houses, and there prices are coming in at $65-85/sf (most definitely excluding the Marlon Blackwell designed house). These are hard costs only. I brought up the Katrina Cottages to one of the architects. He kind of laughed, citing the costs for such a small space, and without any user involvement in the process. They are saving some money with volunteer labor. The clear reality is that prefabrication has never really addressed the affordability issue. But then, on the flip side, some argue that pre-fab only addressees the cost issue, not the architectural issue. If stick built can pull it off, then why not?

Mississippi: Long Term Solutions

Diamondhead HFH Cottage Demonstration

Interior showing addition of living room

Installation of prefabricated tag unit.

Katrina Cottages are sold by Lowe's.

New homes at Cottage Square.

Enterprise Community Partners will find occupants to move into the 8 units in Cottage Square. I don’t see how the occupants are going to last. Will the people living there be temporary? Can someone last permanently in a space like that? It is not that different from a cheap studio apartment in a city, but this is Ocean Springs. Some of the larger units might be viable. If they go to the trouble of making sure the trailers can be permanent, but if the space is not livable enough to be permanent, then what is the point? Spending time in such a small unit, one realizes that it wouldn’t work for the typical American family. Maybe in other countries, but not in the US. Consequently, the first question is: “Well, what about adding on?”
The main challenge is that communities and neighborhoods are vehemently opposed to such ‘trailer’ housing, fearing their property values will drop. They don’t want mobile homes nearby. And since the Katrina Cottage is on a trailer, it is considered mobile. The trailer and the scale are the kickers.

Mississippi. Temporary vs. Permanent

One of the interesting components about the Katrina Cottages is the questions it raises about temporary vs. permanent housing. Of course, the original FEMA trailer and mobile homes that were provided were certainly seen only as temporary housing. I don’t need to go into detail about how poorly these were planned and built. Not only were many people forced out the trailers because of toxic formaldehyde issues, there was no plan at all with what to do with them AFTER people got back into permanent housing. In fact, they are now selling most of them for scrap.

And while the Katrina Cottage didn’t actually look like a trailer, its scale was such that it was seen as something temporary. And the house was actually mounted on a trailer. The plan was for these to serve as temporary housing to be put on site while people rebuilt their houses. There was no real long term plan for it. Most of the Cottages were produced in Mississippi through their receipt of a $270 million from the Department of Homeland Security Alternative Housing Pilot Program. This particular program, under the direction the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency has produced about 3000 “Mississipp Cottages” (not be confused with Louisiana Cottages) that served a very useful purpose. There were supposed to be three models produced:
Park Model: 387 SF one bedroom
Mississippi Cottage: 728 SF one bedroom and 840 SF two bedroom
Eco-Cottage: A variation that has more focus on green and energy efficient materials.

There are now eight Park Models at Cottage Square. In order to prove their viability as permanent housing, they have been removed from the original chasis and dropped onto permanent foundations. But walking into these, one feels like you are entering a miniaturized mobile home. The linoleum floor bounces, the kitchen has to low quality fake cabinets, and the furniture arrangement feels awkward. Additionally, the space just feels different. It is a much harsher space than the original Katrina Cottage, which was architect designed. This product had been streamlined through a factory to be mass produced. It felt like it had lost its soul. To get a house done right at that scale, the skills of an architect are desperately needed to make the size and quality of space work. Using the traditional streamlined systems that focus purely on mass production will only lessen its quality.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Mississippi Cottages are awaiting a yet to be determined fate a local staging yard. It is quite a scene.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Mississippi: Katrina Cottages

Cottage Square in Ocean Springs, MS

The original Katrina Cottage designed by Marianne Cutsano

Mississippi Cottage

I went to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to learn more about the Katrina Cottage. Developed out of the New Urbanist charrettes after the storm, it is one of the few decent examples of architecture/planning that I think has come out of the process. It is something that has actually gone to scale and is being put to use. Designed as an alternative to a FEMA trailer that was built and looked better, it was an option many people could be more comfortable with and something people felt a little more up to the standards that one would expect out of our country. Digging into it has been interesting and revealed much about American’s approach to housing.
One interesting location where one can track the progress and development of the Katrina Cottage is at Cottage Square in Ocean Springs, MS. There, architect Bruce Tolar has developed a series of designs and created a small community. Having been involved since the beginning with the charrettes led by New Urbanists to look at how communities could redevelop, he has continued to champion the Katrina Cottage as an model for gulf coast recovery, but also for many middle class Americans. The original one was designed by Marianne Cutsano, an architect from New Jersey. It is about 345 SF. The space is quaint, but functional and pretty versatile. It has a very small kitchen, bathroom and bedroom, that has four beds in the form of two bunk beds. She has since teamed up with Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse to sell them directly to consumers. At Cottage Square is also the Lowe’s Cottage. Bruce has built two other buildings, one of which serves as his office and the other has been converted to a hair salon and actually works pretty well. His business sell floor plans of these ranging from 360 SF to 1825 SF. There is a mix of site and factory built houses there.

Monday, January 12, 2009

New Orleans. Rethinking Poverty?

Started, but unfinished
And that opportunity after the storm to rethink and tackle poverty in America in a new way? Ummmm. Yes, it is a catastrophic failure on a national level, but on a local level as well, with endemic corruption that could probably rival many places I have visited within the last year. Consequently, for a city that was almost completely inundated, New Orleans is being rebuilt piece by piece with heroic efforts from tons of people.
Local business in Lower 9th ward that serves some mean chicken
But, zooming out and thinking about this form a larger scale, is this really the best we can do? Is Global Green and Make it Right the best we have to offer? They make look, sound, and smell different, but at the end of the day, they seem like more of the same. Cost overruns and excessive technologies bump up the initial costs of housing for those who need it the most. High profile figures do their best to give money and wield their influence, yet at the end of the day, all of this is being subsidized and built in vulnerable areas. Housing was not the only thing destroyed, livelihoods were as well. If the housing is built, but the means to support those are not redeveloped, then the pattern of New Orleans will be repeated all over again, this time without a storm. Ronald Lewis, who is a lower 9th ward resident is fairly critical of the Make it Right project precisely because it is happening from outside the community. And because it is happening from outside the community, it stifles many possibilities for the community to actually take action and develop something that is of their true direction. It reminds of something someone described as ‘New Democracy,’ where people and communities are actively engaged in participation, they are asked their opinions, they are listened to, but at the end of the day, the end result is still the same, determined by those who set up the process in the first place.
The replacements of the public housing projects are reinterpreted in areas such as River Garden, built and defined by a prescribed notion of style, space, and livelihood made to look like a nice neighborhood under the mantra of HUD’s Hope IV program. Typically, these are mixed income, and the math NEVER lines up. Poor people get displaced, not only from housing units, but neighborhoods and networks as well.

River Garden
So, how then, do you really help jumpstart a community such as the lower 9th ward, and then allow it go on its own? Still working on that one.
But, there are many small scale efforts that are trying to get to the point. One of the projects within the Make It Right project was the Kieran Timberlake house. One of the architects described a much more holistic intention and approach with this particular model. The house is a prototype designed to transition from stick built construction to off-site fabrication, where a self sustaining local industry of component fabrication that could be maintained after the 9th Ward and surround­ing areas are rebuilt. Integrating broader social fabric and conditions into the process is a pretty good way to think about. And allowing the house to be easily customizable to allow the project to grow quickly seems like a good approach as well. This project seems to offer interesting ideas, but I have a fear many initial principles had been lost and it may remain as a one-off project?

Kieran Timberlake's Make it Right project
Another innovative example was the Project Home Again. This project is buying up people’s old flooded homes as they are and then selling them affordable new housing. As a group having the capital, they are able to invest more money into the houses and then resell them once there may be a demand in the area. Otherwise, most homeowners in this neighborhood would not be able to afford renovating their houses, much less be able to sell it.
Project Home Again
Tulane University has been very actively involved in the rebuilding, offering great bits of fresh thinking and young, idealistic, and hopeful creative minds and bodies to get down and dirty. Their work through the City Center has provided a number of wonderful examples and additions to contribute to the new identity of New Orleans. And there are countless quiet heroes working tirelessly on the ground, often in the midst of seemingly insurmountable odds. My host and good friend, who is a Rose fellow, is working hard to ensure that green can be affordable and accessible and understandable to not only low income residents, but low income housing developers.
So, while much of my commentary about New Orleans has been very critical, I do leave very hopeful, because this was one place where I felt that some of the problems we are now facing are going to change. This old guard, this old way of doing things, this status quo that has messed up things so bad as in the case of New Orleans, won’t last forever. And having met tons of young, energetic, optimistic, creative, and critical young minds and doers gives me great hope for what is to come. And I think the election of Obama was the first major step in that transition. And, as in many other places I have visited this year, the most vulnerable people persevere, move forward, and shape and build their environment to the best of their abilities, in spite of all the shit thrown in their faces. It is much easier to write and think about these issues from a distance, than trying to solve it and address it on the ground, everyday. I just basically looked and listened. So, mad props to all those quiet people DOING, trying so hard to offer new solutions.
Throughout the Lower 9th Ward, there are many signs that say “Roots Run Deep Here.” I finally really understand it. After seeing Trombone Shorty at Tipitino’s and dancing down the streets of Treme Sunday in a Second Line, I have realized how special this place really is. While I returned to back to my home country, New Orleans still felt like as rich and engaging city as any in the world.
Roots run deep

Second line

New Orleans. Green Washing Machine

Here, it seems the whole green thing has gotten a little bit out of whack. It is kind of interesting how little I have really thought about green and sustainable stuff on my trip. It was kind of a shock to return and be bombarded with the word, ‘GREEN.’ In returning to the Gulf Coast, I am reminded how green is all the rage, not only here, but in the entire country.
While it has always been at the back of my mind, it is just not that relevant in most of the projects I have been looking at. There are so many more fundamental things that are important, like having a home in the first place. Land, electricity, water, plumbing, opportunities, human rights, education, and the ability to leave a better life for the next generation. All these seem much more about sustainability (economic, social, and environmental) than the word, ‘GREEN’, just because it seems to get isolated and represent the latest fad. It almost seems like the rest of the world’s homes are more sustainable precisely because they are incremental. So, I don’t even think that green is even an issue in most of the world, but sustainability absolutely is. Architects need to get the basics right and since people in most of the world don’t consume so much, they don’t talk and care about being green, although that is quickly changing in places like India and China.
One of the more high profile green projects is the Global Green house in the Lower 9th Ward. The spaces are really nice, the scale is good, and it is attractive. 1300 square feet, the volunteer on duty told me it was about $200,000. It does the basics pretty well (south facing, shading, high ceilings, clear story windows, natural ventilation). But, it also has all the bells and whistles: paperless sheetrock, low VOC paints, a dashboard (computerized control system monitoring all the energy usage), water collection cisterns, energy efficient appliances, piping to use rainwater as greywater in the future, (if codes ever allow it) solar panels, small green roof, and hopes to eventually put turbines in the Mississippi River right next to it. And, it is a LEED Platinum building (the highest green rating a building can get.). Great, right? Sort of.
Some guys from the adjacent neighborhood walked in while I was there and one said to the other, ”It looks like it is from…..California.” It was actually designed by people from New Jersey. And while it is a demonstration project, it seems to go overboard, a bit, especially in terms of providing solutions that average homebuilders can employ in helping them rebuild and improve the efficiency of their homes in the 9th Ward. I was talking to another architect, and she was saying that some friends working on the project, gave a price more like $400,000-$450,000. Daaaamn. That would put it around $325/sf. Okay, it is the first one, right? Well, still, too much and too excessive. Like so many things in our country.
In many ways, we wouldn’t need to pushing such crazy technologies and issues if we didn’t consume so much in the first place. Of course, there will always be a need for renewable energy sources such as sun and wind, but a lot of this other stuff still helps us feel better and not so guilty about the lives we have been leading for so long. Our country is one of the main reasons we have such a problem with climate change in this world. Our consumption per capita dwarfs that of everyone else. But, you can’t just change the systems by which energy is delivered. It takes a lot time. And the infrastructure is prohibitively expensive. But, for me, that is where the government can come in a provide the much needed funding and incentives for change to take place. The true free market will not ultimately work where it needs to. Look where it has gotten us now. I suspect there are certain areas where it won’t adjust itself and energy seems like it might be one of those areas.
And now, we create products to help solve the problems we have created. I guess it is not that bad, at least. The improvements we have done in building design in terms of energy efficiency have been incredible and the LEED rating system has done an amazing job. But, much of this stays in the commercial sector (where companies have to have capital to invest in these things) or in the middle to upper class portions of the residential market. I am interested in how these ideas and technologies can make it down to lower income people and how it can truly make such housing more affordable, and not vice versa. Right now, a lot of the green stuff is not really addressing such issues. And houses like Global Green just address reinforce the notion that geen is expensive and is a just a bunch of toys that architects like to play with and can’t really reach a broad spectrum of people. The Home Depot Foundation invested $5 million into the Global Green project. I guess they have an incentive to make it work. More sales for them….Corporate responsibility? Who is funding and paying for the rest? How much do people actually pay, and how do the mortgages tie into all of this?
The same thing is happening down the road with the Make it Right project, but not quite on the same scale. Both projects have Brad Pitt’s fingerprints on them. The MIR project is working to build 150 houses in the Lower 9th Ward, of which they have currently built 5. The website says each of them costs $150,000 but people working closely on the project, say they are well over $200,000. The forms are a little funky and a bit off base, and there are some scale issues developing in that process. People talk about one of them as a McMansion. But, it has solar panels. So, in many cases when high profile architects get involved and green comes to forefront, the affordability goes out the window.

New Orleans

Lower 9th Ward

Lower 9th Ward from the industrial canal levee


Gym in the lower 9th

Unfinished house in the lower 9th

Public housing in upper 9th ward
On my stop back in the US, I headed to the Gulf Coast to see how things were progressing after Hurricane Katrina. My first stop was New Orleans. One of the more telling things about New Orleans is that now, there are some areas of the city where you can’t really tell if it had been flooded or not. Some parts that had been flooded are back and in good shape, and there are neighborhoods that had never been flooded that look worse than those that have been flooded. The word decay was constantly popping up in my mind. Yet, while decay is very present, growth is very present, with the building industry booming, one of the few places in the country. New projects are popping up all over the place.
Part of what makes this time and rebuilding interesting is there are areas which have been completely razed. Driving across the Inner Harbor Canal and dropping into the Lower Ninth Ward, you almost lose your breath by realizing how empty the whole area is. Except for those new modern houses as part of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation. They are strange and almost foreign forms of a new type of growth sprouting from a devastated neighborhood.

MIR house designed by Graf
But the wide open swaths of land waiting to be redeveloped aren’t only in the Lower Ninth Ward. The Central City feels like a ghosttown, and a good chunk of it was hardly even flooded. It also holds a couple of New Orleans’s largest public housing projects, all of which are in the process are being redeveloped. Each of these offers a wide open land within the city for new projects and possibly new identities to emerge. The timing, context, and redevelopment of each of these projects present a lot of interesting conditions. Many of them were already in the process of demolition even before Katrina. But, after the storm, protests grew into outrage as many people struggled to understand how the city could be destroying so many units of good housing that had been relatively undamaged by the storm. I guess it really doesn’t make much difference whether a neighborhood is now completely bombed out because of Katrina or because of years of social neglect.
Central City
One example is the Make it Right project and since it has been spearheaded by Brad Pitt, it is gaining the most notoriety. Having a blank slate in some areas should offer new ways of thinking about housing. But, the history and context here is strong and established. My initial gut reaction to this project was, “Damnit, here go architects again.” But, for a place like the Lower 9th Ward, getting people into homes is pretty critical, and strong formal moves may not matter that much to people there. They just need to get into well built homes soon. And that is what Habitat for Humanity did with the nearby Musician’s Village. They are all the same. But, they are getting built and people are living in them.

Musician's Village