History

The Katrina Cottage initiative began the Saturday after hurricane in the offices of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company in Miami where I met Andrés Duany to strategize the New Urbanist response to the hurricane. Previously, I had received a call from my good friend and colleague Michael Barranco in Jackson, Mississippi, who was helping Mississippi Development Authority Executive Director Leland Speed set up the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, and Renewal for Commission Chairman Jim Barksdale.

Michael asked if I would come and speak to the Commission on the New Urbanism, but realizing the potential of such an event, I said "that's far too big for me; let me call in Andrés.” Andrés' response on Saturday was "that's too big for both of us; let's call in the entire Congress for the New Urbanism." And so he picked the phone and called CNU CEO John Norquist, setting in motion what became the Mississippi Renewal Forum. 

Part of our task that first Saturday after the storm was to craft an initial proposal for Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour that laid out, among other things, a path for replacing the huge number of homes that had been lost on the Coast. Andrés had seen firsthand the devastation of Hurricane Andrew fifteen years previously, and knew that Homestead, Florida still had a few FEMA trailers fifteen years later, housing residents whose homes still had not been rebuilt. Some children had started first grade and graduated from high school living in the same FEMA trailer. It was obvious that the normal method of doing nothing but stick-building wood framed houses on-site would fall far short on the Gulf Coast.

Early reports indicated that New Orleans might have lost up to 250,000 homes. The construction industry there had been building about a thousand homes per year before the storm, so at that rate, it would take 250 years to rebuild. Andrés said early in the day that “this is a problem of such unprecedented proportion that no single delivery system is up to the task. We must have all hands on deck. We must have a solution that delivers houses that are manufactured, houses that are panelized, and houses that are site-built." Later, modular houses were differentiated from manufactured houses as two types of factory-built houses, and kit houses were added to the mix.

We realized that rebuilding with nothing but construction speed as a goal likely would create a Gulf Coast that would be a regrettable place for centuries. So we realized the cottages must be of excellent design, and that would be appropriate to the regional conditions, culture, and climate. In other words, the houses should look and act as if they belonged on the Gulf Coast. I quickly did the first design as a prototype illustrating the criteria we had established and sent it out to the New Urban Guild with a call for designs. Quite a number of members quickly responded with designs. On September 27, Andrés sent out an email that coined our response “Katrina Cottages” for the first time. The name stuck.

Mississippi Renewal Forum

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Six weeks after the storm, The Mississippi Renewal Forum was convened in a shattered casino in Biloxi. This event that began with Michael Barranco’s request was probably the largsest planning event in human history, with nearly 200 planners working out a single cavernous room. There was a planning team for each of the 11 worst-damaged communities on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, plus other teams focused on specific issues. Susan Henderson headed up the architecture team, which was made up almost entirely of New Urban Guild members. Several other Guild members worked on community planning teams. On the first day of the Forum, a Sun-Herald reporter stopped by to see our work. Marianne Cusato had just designed a charming cottage, so Media Coordinator Ben Brown gave it to the reporter, who ran it to a great response by the public.

The Big Break

I was in Mississippi with the core team to present our report on the Forum. By this time, the Guild had conceived of their Manufactured Architecture program which we hoped would transform the manufactured housing industry, but we had no manufacturers signed up as yet. I went to New Orleans for a couple days at the conclusion of the Mississippi meetings, and got a call from noted construction industry promter Craig Savage. He had been working with Not So Big House architect Sarah Susanka on a modular idea house for the show, but the manufacturer pulled out at the last minute. Craig, with his finger ever on the pulse of the latest trends in American construction, knew about the Katrina Cottages. “Do you think you can have one built in time for the International Builders’ Show in January,” he asked. I told him we could, not yet having any idea how.

The first question was which design to use. Eric Moser, with tens of thousands of fans all over the Southeast and beyond, was on the architecture team and had done a number of cottages at the Forum. Marianne Cusato, on the other hand, had gotten good press on her design done at the Forum, so it seemed like a good idea to keep that momentum going. I walked down Royal street until I finally found a cell signal just behind the cathedral (New Orleans infrastructure was still largely in ruins at the time) and called Marianne. She said she’d complete the working drawings quickly.

The construction team built Marianne’s cottage in Jackson, Mississippi. Jason Spellings and his team worked almost around the clock to finish the cottage from early December until leaving for Orlando in January. The cottage’s site was in a parking lot behind the convention center, but crowds begin to grow from the first morning, as the buzz about the cottage spread through the halls of the show. By the time the show was over, the cottage had gotten more attention than the 10,000 square foot Idea House, and Marianne was doing interviews for TV stations.

Emergency House Plans

Several of the New Urban Guild members who had done designs before, during, and after the Forum followed up with complete sets of working drawings, and I assembled these into the Emergency House Plans booklet. Longtime New Urbanist publisher Diane Dorney got them printed just in time for the first design charrette in metro New Orleans, held in Arabi, of St. Bernard Parish. It was here that construction on Katrina Cottage II was begun; because it was built of panelized construction (SIPS panels) it was completed shortly thereafter.

Continuing Work

The Mississippi Renewal Forum was the starting point of several years of work in Mississippi for a number of Forum participants, helping the towns and cities to get their rebuilding started. The Arabi charrette began a similar process for other New Urbanists in and around New Orleans. Of all the planning and architecture work throughout the region, the most visible and most enduring legacies twelve years later are Cottage Square in Ocean Springs and several projects around New Orleans by DPZ and Urban Design Associates which incorporated a large number of Katrina Cottages.

The People's Choice Award

Katrina Cottages received good press nationwide and abroad for several years, but there was perhaps no even that generated more of it than the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards in 2006. Katrina Cottages were not among the original choices that year, but Marianne’s Katrina Cottage I which had received the bulk of the press on the cottages at that time, was written in by enough people to win the People’s Choice Award.

The Lowe's Cottages

Marieanne and Andrés led a program with Lowe’s Home Improvement that was similar to the Sears kit homes of a century ago. Unlike the Sears Homes, there was no kit of parts delivered to the site. Instead, Lowe’s sold cottage plans and assisted customers in buying exactly the materials needed to build the cottages. Marianne enlisted Guild members Bruce Tolar, Bud Lawrence, Eric Moser, and Geoffrey Mouen to produce plans in addition to hers and Andrés’. The Lowe’s program ran from 2007 -2011.

Katrina Cottage Descendants

The Meltdown and the ensuing Great Recession changed the thinking of pretty much everyone who had been involved with the Katrina Cottages initiative. Marianne has since developed her New Economy Home series, which you can read about here. The New Urban Guild convened a summit in January 2009 to launch Project:SmartDwelling. Both of these initiatives took many clues from things we all learned but both focused this time on the mainstream US housing market instead of the disaster recovery mission of the Katrina Cottages. There is a third group that isn’t exactly a descendant, because they existed before Katrina, but which benefited greatly from the Katrina Cottages: the Tiny House movement. Prior to the Katrina Cottages, they were a tiny niche movement, unknown to almost everyone, but the flood of Katrina Cottage publicity and the resulting public goodwill channeled into the Tiny House movement after the Meltdown… or at least that’s what I believe happened. 

Future of the Katrina Cottages

As Laura Clemons likes to point out, there has been an average of one federally-declared disaster per week in the US since Katrina, most of which you’ve never heard of because they don’t get enough news coverage to get into the national consciousness. It is only this year, twelve years after Katrina, with hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria wreaking havoc and destruction on US soil that we’ve begun to think about disaster recovery housing again. Now, it’s high time to dispense with the dangerous and degrading FEMA trailers and start building disaster recovery housing worthy of being there for a hundred years instead of getting yanked out by FEMA in 18 months. The Act of Congress authorizing FEMA to provide long-term housing was signed a dozen years ago by the President. We can spend less taxpayer money and provide permanent housing with dignity, and in the process be much better stewards of national resources. Why on earth not?

~Steve Mouzon

© New Urban Guild 2017