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.