Finally Thinkin’ Small: But can we build on what we’ve learned?

As soon as the destructive path of Hurricane Sandy became evident, I got emails and calls from colleagues who, like me, worked in disaster recovery situations on the Gulf Coast. When the clean-up gets underway, could this be an opportunity for the Eastern Seaboard states to apply some of the rebuilding lessons of the Gulf after Katrina? Is there a role for Katrina Cottages?

Well, sure. If there’s one upside in the succession of devastating weather events over the last decade, it’s the opportunity to build on lessons learned. Time between disasters dulls response capacities; shorter gaps refine best practices. And for my money, no lessons are worth more than those connected with the evolution of sustainable neighborhood design.

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Six Years Later: Katrina Cottages take hold

August 11 will be a landmark day in the South Mississippi communities still recovering from the 2005 mega-storm, Hurricane Katrina. And it’s about time.

On that day next week, 18 days shy of the sixth anniversary of the storm, the development team behind the Cottages at Oak Park in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, will host a ribbon cutting for 29 rental units that represent the latest evolution of an idea born in the Mississippi Renewal Forum following the storm.

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Livin’ Large in Small Spaces: It Takes a Town

I’m big on small.

Ever since the 2005 Misissippi Renewal Forum in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I’ve been beating the drum for Katrina Cottages and cottage neighborhoods. Most recently here and, in 2009, here.

I haven’t exactly been a voice in the wilderness. In fact, I wasn’t even among the early wave of advocates. Continue Reading

You Betcha! It’s PechaKucha…

It used to be that I would claim to be too young to be cynical, but those days have long passed. The change is becoming apparent as I begin to prepare for a local PechaKucha event I’m participating in this weekend. It’s Global PechaKucha Day for Haiti to raise money and awareness for Haiti through Architecture for Humanity. It is important to keep our public awareness momentum going as the devastation in Haiti will quickly be forgotten as soon as Tiger Woods or the OctoMom tees it up once again and recaptures the attention of our “utopia of overfed clowns riding in clown cars around the plasticized cartoon outskirts of our ruined cities,” to quote James Howard Kunstler.

PechaKucha has become a national designers phenomenon in itself. The idea is that the format keeps speakers on track, short, and to the point at 20 slides x 20 seconds each. The format is now commonly used at APA, CNU and AIA conferences with great excitement. Having done a few here in San Diego and seeing more across the nation has led me to believe that it has limited effect. Andres Duany once critiqued a presentation of mine as having too many slides. He challenged me to speak for as long as possible with as few slides as possible. A picture is worth 1,000 words and a really good picture should tell a whole story. 20 pictures in 6 minutes 40 seconds is a bit excessive, but hey, it’s totally hip and cool.

PechaKucha for Haiti Reconstruction

From the national press release: In response to the catastrophic magnitude 7 earthquake that tore the country apart, the global PechaKucha family is coming together with Architecture for Humanity to lend a hand in rebuilding Haiti. The global event will stick to its now renowned presentation format: 20 images, 20 seconds – but will be taking place in 200 cities, generating 2,000 presentations and more than 200,000 spectators simultaneously. All proceeds to benefit PechaKucha for Haiti Fund, from which all proceeds go directly to Architecture for Humanity 501(c) and will be used solely to build buildings. Design work has already been paid for by donations.

The reason our local chapter of Architecture For Humanity invited me to this international event is due to my experience during the Mississippi Renewal Forum Charrette. They wanted my Hurricane Katrina experience and acerbic perspective to pepper the PechaKucha night. The lessons learned were many. A few that have resonated are:

Credit: Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co.

1) Andres Duany is right again … our teams aimed toward rebuilding too well too soon and were too empathetic with the local’s sense of loss. We wanted to rebuild their towns toward a restored beauty that hadn’t existed since Hurricane Camille and missed the step of simply inhabiting the area under healthy and safe conditions for human welfare. The recent Haitian proposals are more realistic in assessing the conditions and immediate need. The prefabricated “core house” proposed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. encapsulates the lessons learned from the difficult Katrina Cottage experience. The easy-to-assemble, easily transferable, dignified structures are being considered as long-term housing appealing to the cultural structure of Haiti.

The handwritten caption reads: 'A camp for the homeless, after the fire of April 18, 1906. Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, Cal.' Credit: alamedainfo.com

2) As with the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, those who stayed on the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina lived in the parks and plazas that provided necessary open space to build temporary structures and re-establish life in towns and cities. Today, parks and civic spaces are seen as amenities rather than the emergency relief and lifeblood they really are. Those parks that were inhabited during rebuilding will be revered and beloved for good reason. Their parks literally saved Pass Christian, Mississippi.

3) In San Diego we will plan, codify, re-plan, re-code, re-test, and change building codes over and over again in response to earthquake events. Experts predict that over the next 30-years a 9.0 quake will hit California and kill 3,000 people. However, over that same amount of time, 10x that many people will die in California from obesity, diabetes and other health issues associated with a lack of physical exercise — but our local codes and planning will not be subjected to the earthquake-level rigor.

With that point, I am not trying to make light of the fact that our building codes allow for buildings to better survive earthquakes and only kill 3,000 rather than the 300,000 persons in Haiti. However, I am incredulous that the longer term is less emphasized in planning and coding than the one-off catastrophic event. We must plan for both short-term and long-term hazards with equal rigor.

If you’re in San Diego this weekend, our PechaKucha event will take place on February 20, 2010 at the Whistle Stop Bar, 2236 Fern Street in South Park, and will be webcast worldwide between 8:00 – 9:00 p.m. in a unique “WAVE” presentation. Know that my wonderful wife and I had our wedding reception on St. Patrick’s Day at the Whistle Stop Bar and it is a block away from my home. This reminds me of how fortunate I am, and maybe I should lighten up…

– Howard Blackson

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