Heaven Help Us: Ambitious Project Both Reaffirms, Tests Faith in Sustainable Future

I was a post-Vatican II, suburban Catholic.

For anyone of shared experience, that typically meant attending a church that was designed and built to serve the rapidly growing, happy motoring suburban leisure class. Equal parts woody earth tones and ample parking, it was a transient testament to our nation’s awkward adolescence: a monolithic UFO of contemporary styling.

But it was also testament to the church’s theological tension at the time, which manifested itself in doctrinal inclinations towards avoiding that which had been done before. To this day, according to architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, this unresolved traditional/modern conflict “requires a sorting out of intellectual goals and the emotional or visceral effect that a space can have on a people’s spiritual stance.”

I was just a kid at the time but, even then, the less-than-subtle disconnect between these newfangled buildings and the deep rituals taking place inside of them did not go unnoticed.

Theological considerations aside, that’s just poor branding.

But now that the sheen of the suburban promise has faded and our recent history’s tendency towards folly is increasingly revealed, the timing is perfect for some signs of hope.

One such sign arrived today, with this morning’s Atlanta Journal Constitution. But it’s a mixed blessing.

Mary Our Queen Catholic Church, a growing, 15 year old suburban congregation in Norcross, Georgia, is looking for a permanent home. But rather than build something new, they’re looking to purchase a spectacular, historic Buffalo, New York, basilica and move it nearly a thousand miles south, piece by piece, to be reassembled.

The church calls it “preservation through relocation” and claims new construction of equal quality would cost more than twice as much. The whole project seems like a solid exercise in pragmatic preservation, nicely aligned with what Original Green architect Steve Mouzon describes as the key attributes of truly sustainable buildings: lovability, durability, flexibility and frugality.

Such permanence, history and reinforced cultural identity are touchstones of common sense sustainability. But don’t rejoice just yet. There’s at least one devil in the details.

Take a look at the church in its present location:

           

Now consider this rendering of its future home:

Conspicuous in the new plans is the apparent absence of a surrounding neighborhood. Thus, a structure that once stood as the spiritual heart of a physical community will now be repackaged as the idealized temple on a hill.

Not that I have anything against grandeur or symbolism. Each has their place. But the church suggests this rebirth will add centuries to the building’s life. Assuming that’s true, what are the ramifications when the building is embedded in a physical context that many believe has increasingly diminished prospects?

Or, as Mouzon puts it, “Only after a place has been made sustainable does it make sense to discuss sustainable buildings.”

That’s not outside the parish’s reach. It simply depends on their vision. If their goal is to remain a relevant spiritual hub over decades (if not centuries), they may want to broaden their approach to reflect the fact that their days as an auto-dependent destination may be numbered.

Could the church transcend its sprawl-intensive landscape to once again, as circumstances change, serve as the heart of a vibrant physical community? Maybe yes. Gwinnett County, where the church is located, has been the site of some intriguing suburban mall retrofit proposals and, on an even more related note, Grenfell Architecture has spelled out a great proposal for transitioning a sprawling, suburban lot to a denser, transit-friendly urban neighborhood, developed over time by a church that would sit at its center.

It all goes to show just how fractured the whole conversation is. In no way discounting the church’s efforts, they’re just one more example of how far we’ve yet to go. If only there were some resource that put all the issues – transportation, land use, environmental and historic preservation, energy depletion, community sustainability, cultural identity, agriculture, and more – on the same page so individual efforts could better plug into a more cohesive big picture.

We could call it the Good Book.

–Scott Doyon

Easy Rider: David Byrne Unfolds Bike, Reviews Cities of the World

Over the holiday I experienced a very 21st century weekend. Upon downloading my new Kindle App on my iPhone, I read David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries, 2009 Viking Penguin. The $14.99 book caught my attention at the local bookstore and became my first Amazon Kindle App purchase for $9.99. I know, I know… but I promise to never buy eBooks that have exclusive Wal-Mart deals.

David Byrne, artist, musician and now author, is this year’s CNU 18-Atlanta Keynote speaker. His Talking Heads music taught me to dance in early 1980’s High School proms and one of my partners was in a punk rock band on the same New York City club circuit. While traveling through Texas recently, I re-watched Mr. Bryne’s 1986 movie, ‘True Stories,’ which I found to be an enjoyably restrained criticism of suburban sprawl. So, I was connecting with the author on many levels and eagerly swiped through the e-book on my iPhone.

Still talking: David Byrne

The hook is that Mr. Byrne sees our townscape as New Urbanist do while writing down his observations from the perspective of his well-travelled folding bicycle. While traveling the world to perform, Mr. Bryne brings his bicycle with him to refresh his senses and understand the places he is visiting. Through his years of bicycling around the world, coupled with his musician point-of-view, the book’s hook on me was his chapters on experiencing cities in an intelligent and artistic manner. He poignantly captures the landscapes of Manila, Berlin, Istanbul, Detroit and Baltimore in political, social and cultural ways. His account of finding the visionary urban planner Jan Gehl, great New York urban theorist Jane Jacobs, and Transportation Innovator Enrique Penalosa, seemed illuminating for Mr. Byrne, and I look forward to hearing his reaction to meeting our Congress this spring.

My personal reaction to the book was that Bicycle Diaries is a more artistic version of James Howard Kunstler’s more caustic City in Mind. After an easy-to-agree-with suburban sprawl critique introduction, I began to feel like a NASCAR spectator awaiting the carnage! Blow up Las Vegas; put Detroit out of its misery; and, yes, San Diegans are rude! The fun part was Mr. Byrne’s unexpectedly sharp critique of European and foreign cities both culturally and while biking. Except for Melbourne, of course. It seems Melbourne has become the new Barcelona – the greatest city in the world – probably because it is located in the far corner of world and most of us can only imagine how great it is.

The ending of the book sort of drifted off for me as I was less interested in Greenwich Village bicycle rack design as I had been about a city of hookers in the Philippines (an unfortunate personal bias). The revelation that resonates with me is because of David Byrne’s desire to simply get out of the car to see and experience the world he has become a well-respected transportation advocate in his hometown of New York.

— Howard Blackson

Learning from Leon

My colleagues have quickly grown tired of my repeated references to the week I recently spent with Leon Krier while he toured Southern California to promote his new book, The Architecture of Community. The book, published by Island Press and co-edited by Dhiru Thadani and Peter Hetzel, is an updated compendium of Leon Krier’s most significant work to date. The book was included in Planetizen’s Top 10 Books published in 2009.

Leon me, when you're not strong..

Before this publication, Geoff Dyer, one of my business partners, and I had been engaged in a silly professional competition to acquire Leon’s books because it was difficult to find his many brilliant books and projects for sale in United States book stores. My rare French copy of Architecture Rationnelle put me in the lead until Leon autographed Geoff’s copy of Architecture: Choice or Fate, led with “To the very talented…”

With a stroke of Leon’s pen, Geoff now sits comfortably in the lead.

Leon came to San Diego to give a lecture on architecture and urbanism to 250 interested people in a beautiful Balboa Park theater and then to 200 excitable students and faculty at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design. Local reporters, planning directors, and political leaders heard, met and learned from Leon throughout the week. San Diego Union-Tribune and San Diego City Beat wrote about his time in the city.

After San Diego, Leon then spoke to a class at Arizona State University with Emily Talen and Nan Ellin. He then joined Stefanos Polyzoides in Pasadena to discuss architecture and urbanism at the invitation of the Mayor of Pasadena. Pasadena Star News and Pasadena blogs Inside Socal and Media Bistro covered the visit.

The lessons learned from Leon while touring the Southwest were varied, complex and meaningful. The more general themes surprised me most. For example, upon picking him up from the airport, I immediately drove Leon to the latest modernist infill project in my turn-of-the-century streetcar neighborhood. The villa savoye copy had been in Architecture Record as the local architect is well known.

Upon passing by the building slowly, I was expecting an affirmation of my disgust when Leon says–disappointingly– “It’s good.” My eyes widened and my hands gestured wildly as I explained that the fenestration was backwards, the building completely out of context, and the urbanism only existent in materials and scale. Leon agreed that all were true, but that for a modernist building it was a very good example.

The lesson being, “If you do modernism (or anything for that matter)… then do it well.” He is correct. I forget how difficult it is to get buildings and places built. He said that to build anything in today’s toxic environment (naturally and politically) was laudable and then to build it well was meaningful. So, I relaxed a little about a building I had previously wished acts of God upon and drove Leon downtown.

Driving past the single core of the city, townhouse-wrapped, Vancouver-model towers proliferate San Diego’s downtown cityscape. I explained the ugly politics that gave additional entitlement to buildings that had green roofs rather than civic spaces. I was expecting a classic Leon Krier diatribe on the lack of value Vancouver brings to the New Urbanist dialog and both the ecological and social failure of high-rise towers as a building type. Instead, he thought San Diego’s towers were somewhat playful and fun. He explained that while towers are regretful, these had an element of lightness and amusement that made them easier to live with than those being stamped across Vancouver and the east coast.

Finally, he quickly surmised that our monotonous grid must become more complex. As he had pointed out years ago in Houses, Palaces, and Cities, the grid is rural in structure with its visual terminus toward infinity. A simple ‘center’ was needed in key locations to ‘urbanize’ the neighborhoods within the monotonous grid. Due to the width of San Diego’s typical streets, 80’, a majority of the infill retrofit could occur within city right-of-way and include civic buildings.

Therefore, mostly what I learned from Leon (besides the fact that driving around was much less informative than walking) was to approach places and projects with a positive, optimistic attitude in order to work towards a better future. Why is this simple lesson meaningful? To see this man remain positive after 35 years of being vilified in our modern design world is very inspirational. While his professional lectures are polemic and absolute, his professional perspective is equally optimistic and conclusive.

The following are Leon Krier’s recent drawings of how to create more urban centers in our more rural grid:

Existing US Condition

           


           

–Howard Blackson

Call for Cool Plans

New Urban Guild plans Southern Living plan book

Miami-based architect and author Steve Mouzon, founder of the The New Urban Guild, has made the deal he and the Guild have been working toward for years. Southern Living magazine, arguably the most influential shelter mag in the southeastern US, is going to publish Guild collections of TND-worthy homes. And Mouzon is inviting all comers to submit designs.

Read all about it here

“We’re looking for a wide range of house plan sizes, from cottages to mansions,” says Mouzon. “And we’re also looking for many types of plans, including side yard houses, courtyard houses, carriage houses, townhouses, mews units, live/work units, and Katrina Cottages. There’s only one type we don’t need — ordinary houses — as in ordinary suburban houses with garages in front, facing the street. There are enough of those plans out there already.”

PrintPlans will be selected by a jury of Guild members. “It’s a tough jury, so only a fraction of plans submitted are likely to be selected,” says Mouzon. “But that’s what it takes to make sure this is the best collection of traditional neighborhood homes ever assembled.”

Go here for plan submission requirements. And if you want to see Mouzon’s narration of two of his own designs, Katrina Cottages constructed for Cottage Square in Ocean Springs, MS, check out this:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpWLviXW6x8]

New Urbanist Cohousing: Another Arrow in Developers’ Quivers?

CNU 17, DENVER, CO – New Urbanists attending the 17th annual Congress of New Urbanism gathering in Denver will spend the next four days talking about alls sorts of overlapping , interconnected challenges: The uncertain economy, the implications of climate change, the impact of an aging society on land use planning, to name a few. About an hour away in Boulder are intriguing examples of how designers, developers, and a forward-thinking housing authority might tackle some of those issues.

The Holiday community on Broadway, about 10 minutes from Boulder’s downtown, is a ten-year-old New Urbanist development built on an old drive-in movie site. The local housing authority, Boulder Housing Partners, acquired the property in 1997, and invited five local developers to provide 300-plus units, 40 percent of which had to hit affordability benchmarks.

The Holiday community's co-housing units.

The Holiday community's co-housing units.

The general plan – retail and offices fronting Broadway, live-works, town houses, duplexes, and single family units of different scales deeper within the project – would be familiar to most New Urbanists. What sets it apart are two embedded cohousing neighborhoods – Wild Sage, a 34-unit multi-generational neighborhood, and Silver Sage Village, a 16-unit elder cohousing cluster.

Cohousing is an imported-from-Denmark approach to community building that reverses the usual relationship between resident and developer by encouraging the formation of a virtual neighborhood of people who work out how they intend to live with one another before they move in, or even choose the setting in which they’ll live. They maintain separate living units but share maintenance chores and a  common house where they dine together at least a couple times a week. It’s part commune, part condo, all community. For a more complete explanation and list of cohousing communities in the US, go here.

Before the economy went into the dumps, cohousing was attracting more and more interest, particularly elder cohousing, which seems a far more attractive way to age in place than in a car-centric suburb.  Last month, USA TODAY’s Haya el Nasser profiled life at Silver Sage. And the movement is still big enough to stage its own national get-together, June 24-28, in Seattle.

That appeal to community makes cohousing a natural ally, a potential nesting component, in New Urbanist projects all over the country.  Jim Leach, president of Wonderland Development Company credits the fast start of the whole Holiday project to the enthusiasm Wild Sage’s residents brought to the project.  And demand for units in Silver Sage Village boosted market-rate prices over the $500,000 mark for some units.

Is this something developers, who could use all the jump starts they can find in the current environment, should be paying more attention to?

Certainly Jim Leach and architect Bryan Bowen, who designed the two Holiday cohousing clusters, think so. 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSVyshBniL4]

— Ben Brown

Now What? CNU 17 Addresses the New Era Economy

The irony is unavoidable. Interest in Smart Growth and New Urbanist topics has never been higher. Check out this May 2 column in the Washington Post; or David Brooks’ opinion piece in the New York Times from May 4. Yet the economic downturn has sucked the energy out of innovative projects in both private and public sectors. Lots of will, less way. At least for the moment.

image002And this is the moment in which the 17th national gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism takes place. CNU 17 begins June 10 in Denver. Early registration ends today.

Before the bottom dropped out of the economy, CNU attendees were expected to be talking a lot about greening the movement. Now, the hot topics will be about adapting to new realities.

While the downturn may seem like a reason to skip this year’s gathering, it may be the best reason for scraping together the resources to get to Denver. If ever there was a time to share great ideas, this is that time.

Already the energy is producing cool stuff, particularly the award-winning video that makes the convincing argument that cul de sacs spell the end of civilization as we know it. Here it is:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pErk61t1N70]

We’ll see you there. If you have time, check out the discussion I’m moderating at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 13. It’s an invitation to  “Embrace the Convergence” between the goals of creating compact, walkable comunnities and strategies for addressing public health, environmental, and demographic challenges. On the panel: EPA’s Tim Torma, the CDC’s Dee Merriam, and former AARP staffer Michael O’Neal.

– Ben Brown

Prince of Wales Argues (Again) for ‘Bottom Up’ Design

Addresses British Architects Who Aren’t Always Big Fans

Twenty-five years after he prodded the Royal Institute of British Architects on the group’s 150th anniversary to consider making a little room for traditional approaches to architecture and planning, HRH The Prince of Wales appeared before the group on another anniversary to clarify the message. Though it’s not likely unrepentant modernists in the group saw it as a reframing of the issue.

Connecting us to our place in the world through an "organic architecture."

Connecting us to our place in the world through an "organic architecture."

“To my mind,” said the Prince, “that earlier speech also addressed a much more fundamental division than that between Classicism and Modernism: namely the one between “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches to architecture. Today, I’m sorry to say, there still remains a gulf between those obsessed by forms (and Classicists can be as guilty of this as Modernists, Post-Modernists, or Post-Post-Modernists), and those who believe that communities have a role to play in design and planning.”

Maybe “organic” would be a less controversial way to express his vision than “traditional,” he allowed. “I know that the term ‘organic architecture’ acquired a certain specific meaning in the twentieth century . . , but perhaps it is time to recover its older meaning and use it to describe traditional architecture that emerges from a particular environment or community – an architecture bound to place, not to time. In this way we might defuse the too-easy accusation that such an approach is ‘old-fashioned,’ or not sufficiently attuned to the zeitgeist.”

Since The Prince of Wales has been the most ardent advocate of the New Urbanism in Europe, practitioners in the States will be interested in his current take on this continuing debate about form. See an edited video of his speech before the Royal Institute and a transcript here.

– Ben Brown

What We’re Reading: Leon Krier’s “Architecture of Community”

In 1984, Bruce Springsteen told Rolling Stone Magazine that he had albums of unreleased songs and that one day he would “put those out because there was good material in there.” In 1998, he did just that, releasing a beautiful 4-disc set of unreleased songs. Being a long-time devotee, I was more than a little impressed that, though it took fifteen years, I could still count on Springsteen to keep his word.

A "handy publication" indeed.

A "handy publication" indeed.

During a 2003 charrette, as I asked Mr. Leon Krier to sign my well-worn copy of Architecture: Choice or Fate (Andreas Papadakis Publisher, 1998), he noted that he hadn’t seen too many of his books in the States. In my lame attempt to impress Mr. Krier (no, I didn’t tell him I was a Springsteen fan) I told him that my copy had been found at Powell’s Book Store in Portland and I then began to recite my complete collection of Leon Krier books–L.K. Houses, Palaces, Cities (Academy, 1984) and Rational Architecture (AAM, 1978)–and where I had found them. Mr. Krier gently interrupted me to say something about the need for a “handy publication of my architectural and planning ideas.”

As quoted from the book’s Author’s Note above, Mr. Krier has kept to his word and done just that. The Architecture of Community is a seamless read and a comprehensive publication of his architectural and planning ideas crafted over 40 years. The 443 pages read quickly, as more than half of the book is filled with his poignant cartoons, vignettes, and parti. Eagerly, I read the book over the weekend, trying to not bend the corners or dint the dust jacket.

However, the book’s pristine condition will not last, as I have already begun to use the book as my primary reference guide for architecture and urban composition and theory. I tend to view my daily professional life as tilting at windmills of conventional architecture and urban design, and Mr. Krier’s pithy cartoons lighten this perception, both literally and figuratively. This book contains well-known images from past books as well as new images, photographs, projects, observations and captions.

A missed opportunity in the book is any direct reference to his polemic and inspirational debates with Peter Eisenmann in 1983, which were summed up with this barb, “You can’t, but I can,” in response to Peter stating, “Leon, come on, you cannot build this way anymore today!” Understanding that Mr. Krier’s theoretical position is detailed throughout the book, those series of debates, in my opinion, helped to shape what design means to the United States of America.

As discussed in his chapter, The Modernity of Traditional Architecture, “Traditional architectural forms derive from and are conditioned by the use of natural materials.” Today, with sustainability having moved from long-time trend status (such as Watershed Planning and Livable Communities) to radical movement (such as Modernism and New Urbanism), Mr. Krier’s long-time focus on ecological planning and humane buildings is rising up to meet our contemporary needs.

The book is published by Island Press (ISBN-13:978-1-59726-578-2). Through simple, matter-of-fact, black and white text and graphics, it comprehensively illustrates how Mr. Krier’s work has consistently delved deeper into the timelessness of building “good and elegant human settlements” with new chapters (The Architectural Tuning of Settlements) assembled upon the old (Aspects of Modernity). And, his steady, reliable, dependable and honest focus on shaping our buildings, neighborhoods and towns towards an architecture and urbanism that are simply beautiful is to be celebrated with the reading of Leon Krier’s new book.

– Howard Blackson

Mouzon Green Home Design Featured in WSJ

Contrasts “Original Green” vs. “Gadget Green”

Even before green building gathered momentum, Miami architect Steve Mouzon was determined to change the focus of the discussion. Green shouldn’t be just about the individual house in the here and now, he argued; it has to be about the broader community over time. Design and construction should build on lessons from the past and lay the groundwork for a sustainable future.

That perspective led him to an award-winning book, A Living Tradition: Architecture of the Bahamas, and to the continuing refinement of the idea of “Original Green.” “Original Green,” as opposed to “Gadget Green,” focuses on vernacular practices honed over time to shape highly efficient and much loved structures that adapt and endure over generations.

Must green living fully rely on technological invention?

Must green living fully rely on technological invention?

This past January in Miami, a design group founded by Mouzon, the New Urban Guild, convened in Miami to talk about producing a series of ideas for dwellings for a new era in America. The discussion was about efficiencies of space and about Original Green-style sustainability. Now, one of the first products of that 2008 discussion, a Mouzon design for a neighborhood-friendly green home, was among four ideas featured in a special section of the April 27, 2009, Wall Street Journal.

Mouzon’s concept shares at least one approach with the work of the other four architects. Its scale is relatively small, especially compared with McMansion-style mega-houses. Everybody, it seems, is coming to understand that reducing volume is one sure route to greater energy efficiency. Mouzon’s design fits easily on a standard 50 X 100 urban lot. Its 1,200-square-feet of air-conditioned space utilizes less than half the site. The highly detailed outside rooms encourage living a great part of the time in the outdoors, even in the sub-tropical climate of the South Atlantic coast, where Mouzon chose to locate his theoretical lot. (Original Green, Mouzon will point out, is not a one-size-fits-all approach; designs have to be customized to regional climate to take advantage of time-honored vernacular for conserving energy and achieving creature comfort.)

While Mouzon doesn’t shy away from the latest advancements in solar and wind technologies, he avoids expensive, high-maintenance gadgetry in order to focus on much older – even ancient techniques – to achieve sustainability: Shading eaves, sleeping porches,  cross ventilation, and “sails” to direct cooling breezes in the gardens. In this design, homeowners can live 100 percent off the energy grid. Enough food can be grown in the gardens or harvested from the chicken coop or tilapia pool to sustain a small family. Yet nothing about the house prevents it from nesting comfortably in a neighborhood.

You can read more about the design for the WSJ story on Mouzon’s website here

Katrina Cottages Finding Traction on Gulf Coast

Neighborhood Sites in the Works

Finally, after more than three and a half years, one of the key New Urbanist efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf Coast is beginning to grow legs. And perhaps more importantly, the models being created have implications for affordable housing everywhere. (In the interest of full disclosure: I’ve been a consultant on various Katrina Cottage projects, including the Cottage Square effort covered below. Also: Fellow PlaceMaker Scott Doyon and I revisited lessons-learned since the Mississippi Renewal Forum with our 2008 update of the official charrette website).

The Katrina Cottage movement, born during the Renewal Forum in Biloxi in October of 2005, put forward a series of designs for affordable, storm-worthy structures small in scale but beautifully proportioned and in keeping with the Mississippi coastal vernacular. The idea was to offer emergency housing designed and built so well that they could transition to permanent dwellings, as opposed to FEMA trailers that often ended up in landfills. Read about the history of the KC effort here.

Because of its mandate to focus on emergency management issues and not permanent housing, FEMA resisted investing directly in Katrina Cottages but was nudged into an alternative housing experiment because of pressure from the politically influential Mississippi Congressional delegation. Louisiana, which lost even more homes during the flooding aftermath of Katrina than Mississippi lost in the storm surge, got part of the appropriation, as well. And the two states pursued separate tracks for creating cottages inspired by the work of the Forum architects.

Mississippi designed its own Mississippi Cottages and contracted manufactured housing companies to build them. And while the designs didn’t measure up to the standards set by the Forum architectural team, they came close enough to be embraced by folks desperate to escape from FEMA trailers and to appear capable of taking the next step envisioned by New Urbanist designers in 2005: Transitioning to permanent dwellings in existing neighborhoods and serving as building blocks for cottage clusters in new projects.

What stalled the transition was resistance from citizens who were stuck in the perception that anything made in a factory was a mobile home. So they pressured planning commissions and local officials to keep the cottages out, even, ironically, out of neighborhoods zoned for mobile home parks. In its April 2009 issue, Governing magazine lays out the debate and features one of the reasons the tide is changing: Bruce Tolar’s Cottage Square.

Mississippi Cottages in Cottage Square (Harry Connolly/Enterprise)

Mississippi Cottages in Cottage Square (Harry Connolly/Enterprise)

Tolar, an Ocean Springs, MS, architect, was on the original MRF architectural team and took to heart Andres Duany’s admonition to create model Katrina Cottage neighborhoods. The Cottage Square, created by a development team Tolar assembled, is a transit-oriented, mixed-use infill project on two acres a half-mile from Ocean Springs’ historic downtown. The site is home to six Katrina Cottages, including the first one, Marianne Cusato’s “little yellow house” that was such a big hit at the 2006 International Builders Show. And now it also has eight of the state’s Mississippi Cottages permanently set on foundations, massaged into neighborhood friendliness by Tolar’s building crews, and rented to locals displaced by Katrina. Go here to see how the Mississippi Cottages were wedged into Cottage Square in time for the third anniversary of the storm last year.

As more and more citizens and elected officials get the chance to tour the Square, official resistance to the cottages, including the manufactured Mississippi Cottages, is shrinking. “Most people don’t get this place,” Tolar told Governing, “until they come here.”

Increasingly, they’re getting it. The architect is now working with non-profits, local governments, and private developers to place as many as 200 cottage units in site-planned neighborhoods over the next six months. Some of the sites are likely to contain three or four times the number of units as Cottage Square and may inspire, at long last, an acceleration in the manufacture and on-site construction of safe, affordable housing in neighborhoods built back better than they were before the storm.

Tolar is also getting attention beyond the storm zone. A visiting group from MIT was by recently, and the affordable housing non-profits like Enterprise are spreading the word about potential adaptations of the Cottage Square model for other communities. In the area of the New Austerity, living small and smart could catch on in a big way.

The Katrina Cottage example may provide “recovery housing for the new economy,” Tolar told Governing. “Maybe it’s the home we can all afford. When people ask me why I spend so much time on these cottages, I say it’s because I may be living in one.”

— Ben Brown