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Katrina Cottages: One Year Later

The idea first germinated in the mind of Miami architect and urbanist Andrés Duany. It was late 2005, and he’d just been invited by Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour to lead a massive design charrette that would study 11 Gulf Coast towns devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Among the many separate teams that would address specific towns and issues, Duany formed a group of architects and designers, calling on them to begin work before the charrette. He charged them with sketching “Katrina Cottages,” emergency housing alternatives that could be built as permanent structures, potentially replacing the FEMA trailers that already peppered the Mississippi Gulf Coast landscape.

By the end of the charrette, dozens of designs had been generated by the architecture team. The designs represented a full range of appropriate styles and square footages, and they began to make history almost immediately, starting with New York designer Marianne Cusato’s brainchild.

Today, little more than a year later, the Katrina Cottages have captured the hearts and minds of a growing segment of the general public. The cottages are beginning to change the manufacturing industry. They’re beginning to provide affordable housing that trumps the FEMA trailers in cost and aesthetics. They’re spinning off into multiple uses that weren’t even considered during the original charrette. They’re attainable, attractive, dignified, cost-effective and timeless.

And doggone it, people like them.

When discussing the Katrina Cottage phenomenon, Marianne Cusato’s 308-square-foot design, a.k.a., the “little yellow house,” is a good place to start. Sketched during the Mississippi charrette in Oct. 2005, the diminutive home included a living room, sleeping area, shower and kitchenette -- and struck a chord that is still humming. Its first major publicity stop was in prototype form, built in Mississippi and trucked to the 2006 International Builders’ Show in Orlando, Fla., last January.

Cusato’s cottage and all the subsequent Katrina Cottages are designed to withstand heavy rain and winds up to 140 miles per hour. They meet most hurricane codes, as well as the International Building Code. They can be tucked into small infill lots or built quickly and lived in while a primary residence is under construction, becoming a guest house later.

To say that Cusato’s creation has been well received would be an understatement. The suitors came out of the woodwork, and Cusato found herself fielding calls from individuals, companies and municipalities who wanted to put their own spin on the idea. Kansas City, Kan., officials wanted to use them as homeless shelters. Government officials in Ghana saw them as a solution for their poor. Lowe’s wanted the rights to market them as “materials packages.”

On Oct. 18 of this year, Cusato’s design won the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s People’s Design Award after the public at large was asked to vote online for the best example of good design. The virtual voting booths opened on Sept. 17 and ran through Oct. 16, receiving more than 500 nominations and 5,000 votes.

These days, Cusato is spending much of her time on the Lowe’s deal. The company recently announced it has contracted with Cusato to become the exclusive retailer of Katrina Cottage plans and the building materials needed to construct them.

“We are moving full steam ahead,” says Cusato of the program. “Our goal is to start selling the first four plans in 30 stores on the Gulf Coast, beginning in November.”

Those first four plans will range from 544 to 936 square feet. Two are Cusato’s designs, the third is Duany’s, and the fourth was created by South Carolina designer Eric Moser. “Once those four are up and running, we have another eight to 10 designs from other designers waiting in the wings,” says Cusato.

The Lowe’s materials packages will contain everything necessary to build the cottage, except for the foundation and HVAC components. Pricing should fall somewhere between $45 and $55 per square foot. Lowe's plans to build four models in stores across the Gulf Coast - two in Mississippi and two in Louisiana - so that potential buyers are never more than 60 minutes from seeing a built example.

"After we get the Gulf Coast set up, we'll look to expand nationwide," says Cusato.

The Gulf Coast is already seeing finished Katrina Cottages on the ground on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, thanks in part to three visionaries in Ocean Springs, Miss. Architect Bruce Tolar, along with managing partners Mike LeBatard and George Denmark, created Katrina Cottage Group, LLC (KCG) shortly after the Mississippi charrette. The KCG, composed of architects and business people, is also driving the creation of the Ocean Springs Cottage Square.

The Square covers 2 acres of land near downtown Ocean Springs. When built out, it will hold 14 residential cottages and six commercial designs that have already piqued the interest of a local real estate office, an interior designer, a car dealer and a bank. So far, two cottages have been completed, with a third under construction. Cusato's original cottage is there, as well as the first cottage built by Lowe's (also a Cusato design). The third is a design from Tolar's firm. After that, the list of designers is a veritable who's who of architecture, with cottages to come from Eric Moser, Tom Low, Alex Latham, Robert Orr, Steve Mouzon, Gary Justiss and others.

The Square is an educational project, says Tolar. "It was originally conceived by Andrés Duany and Steve Mouzon as a learning site where we promote buildings, architects, building types and materials. It continues to evolve along those lines, and outside interest has not waned. We've had almost a constant stream of people visiting the site, even without a Web site or any kind of promotional material to hand out. The two questions we hear are: 'How much?' and 'When?' There's no discussion as to whether visitors like it."

The KCG team is working with contractors who want to specialize in Katrina Cottage architecture, as well as manufacturers who want to partner with them. "Just last week I met with a Quebec company that's developing a panelizing system," says Tolar. "And the Southern Forest Products Association wants in on it, too. In six to eight months, we created an industry that we didn't expect. It just doesn't stop."

Not that he wants it to. Tolar plans to keep building cottage squares outside of Ocean Springs, starting with, hopefully, a site in Waveland, Miss., that could accommodate 14 cottages.

In late August, USA Weekend Magazine, in partnership with the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), unveiled the plan of attack for its "Make a Difference Day" on Oct. 28. USA Weekend published renderings of three Katrina Cottages -- all designed by CNU member architects -- and asked its readers to vote for their favorite on its Web site. The winning cottage was given to a deserving family in the Washington, D.C., area (hence its nickname, KC DC).

"The whole idea is to inspire jurisdictions like Montgomery County (Md.) to consider the potential of Katrina Cottages -- including the potential of the 'grow house' concept -- for existing and yet-to-be-developed affordable housing," says PR and marketing consultant Ben Brown, who dreamed up the giveaway idea. "The cottage will be on display for a month or more after the ceremony on Oct. 28, during which anyone can tour a physical example of this new way to leverage the national discussion on affordable living."

As for the competition, architect Steve Mouzon of Miami Beach took home the blue ribbon. His design, which was manufactured by California-based Housing International, is a 500-plus-square-foot "kernel" cottage with add-on wings that can expand the house to 1,300 square feet. When the home was awarded to the winning family on Oct. 28, the kernel portion alone was displayed; the wings will be added after the house moves to its permanent location in Silver Spring, Md.

There are several key "firsts" connected with this project:

• It's the first Katrina Cottage prototype headed for a permanent site beyond the storm zone

• It likely will be the first to be occupied by a resident - probably sometime in December

• It's the first full "grow house"; that is, it contains four "Grow Zones," each of which can expand in two directions

• It's the first to be used by a government jurisdiction in an affordable housing program

The giveaway cottage also offers several notable physical features and benefits, including:

• Its energy performance will be better than any framed Katrina Cottages to date

• It has more space-saving devices than its predecessors; not even the space inside the interior walls is wasted

• It's incredibly modifiable in part because all of the interior walls are totally finished in wood where shelves, pegs, cabinets, appliances, etc. can be attached to the wall at any point without worrying about stud location

• It's built of green materials: The structure is steel frame, finishes have very low to zero volatile organic compounds, walls and flooring are solid wood and slate, respectively

"Plus, it looks really cool," says Mouzon.

Mouzon is up to far more than simple design. Bitten by the Katrina Cottage bug, he has shifted his focus to the manufactured housing industry, hoping to methodically turn it on its ear.

A co-principal of New Urban Guild in Miami Beach, Fla., Mouzon has instituted a certification program for house manufacturers, intended to endorse their product after it meets certification standards. The first manufacturer to sign on for the program is California-based Housing International, which just bought a factory in Reserve, La., outside of New Orleans, and will produce Katrina Cottage VII.

The undertaking is no small feat, says Mouzon. "This endorsement program may well be the catalyst to reinventing an American industry.

"The problem with manufacturing is that an entire American industry needs to be re-tooled in order for Katrina Cottages to be manufactured. The re-tooling is necessary for two reasons. First, the public perception of manufactured housing is rooted in the products it produced years ago. The second reason is because Katrina Cottages are made out of factory: different windows, different siding, different porch trim, different eave trim, etc."

The path toward certification is relatively simple:

1. A manufacturer is given architectural working drawings for a design by a specific designer.

2. The manufacturer uses the working drawings to make its standard shop drawings, plus any additional details, such as wall details.

3. The designer approves the shop drawings.

4. The manufacturer builds a prototype, the components and quality of which are verified by the designer. The designer takes photos of all four sides of the cottage, plus details, and sends the photos to the Guild.

5. The Guild renders a decision, hopefully that the prototype meets the requirements of the design.

6. The unit is added to a roster of certified units.

The Guild has the right to visit a manufacturer's factory at any time to verify that what is being produced using the Guild name and seal of approval is actually matching the prototype. In September, the first Katrina Cottage gained its seal of approval from the New Urban Guild.

This isn't a one-sided venture, says Mouzon. "The reason we're doing this is to tell housing manufacturers if they jump through these new hoops, we'll go to bat for them, help them promote their product, and they'll end up with a serious marketing advantage.

"After we get enough units on the roster, we'll visit municipalities and pitch the cottages as something better than site-built houses. If we can get the public to think of these units as not just being equal in quality to site-built homes, but better than site-built, then we'll see the entire volume-building industry change in less than two years. Once the stigma is removed at least from these units, then Pulte, Centex, etc., will come knocking. You tell me which of them would turn down a chance to build a unit in two weeks rather than four months.

"Manufactured housing could take over the volume building industry -- once we've created a phenomenon of designer housing. We'll know we've succeeded in changing the public perception when, instead of signing municipal ordinances to ban manufactured housing within the city limits, the mayors are signing checks to buy their own houses."

In the historic Bywater section of New Orleans, Andrés Duany and New Towns publisher Diane Dorney are building two Duany-designed, New Orleans vernacular Katrina Cottages to demonstrate how these small-scale, storm-worthy dwellings can fit perfectly into the historic vernacular. The homes will be built by HomeFront Homes.

The back-to-back, double cottages each have about 1,000 square feet of living space -- two bedrooms and two baths -- a private courtyard and a Charleston sideyard-style entry. Built with Hardiboard and clad in stucco, the cottages have metal roofs and New Orleans details to blend with the surrounding neighborhood.

"Each cottage is a 'seed' building that, if used as a separate building, could be added on to and expanded," says Dorney. "In this case, however, because we are building them as double houses, they will not be expandable."

The houses will be marketed to the middle-class people who want to stay in the city, says Dorney. "Bywater is a wonderful mixed-use neighborhood with its own charming cafes and coffee shops. It's bikeable to the French Quarter and is located on high ground. Who wouldn't want to stay?

"I can't wait to get started on building them. We think they are going to serve as great models for the way to rebuild in New Orleans."

Architect Tom Low, who works in the Charlotte, N.C., office of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ), is working on a different slant to the Katrina Cottages. Inspired by their design, ease of construction and low cost, he's spearheading a push to develop Learning Cottages, a replacement for portable school classrooms, born from the Katrina Cottage concept and incorporating the same principles.

To that end, Low has created Civic By Design (CBD), an organization whose stated mission is "to elevate the quality of the built environment and to promote public participation in the creation of a more beautiful and functional community for all."

One of CBD's first goals is the mobile classroom issue, since they are visually unappealing, generally poorly sited, signify overcrowding and don't last as long as permanent structures. The CBD plans to establish a site that will accommodate the building of two to six prototype mobile classrooms. One such prototype would be the Learning Cottage.

"This is a national issue," says Low. "Every school in the country is dealing with the need for more space. We haven't figured everything out, but everyone we've talked to is really enthusiastic about it. It's just a matter of focusing all the energy in one direction and getting this pushed through."

So far, the greatest challenge has been finding a site, Low concedes. CBD has two offers in the Charlotte metro area; Bruce Tolar has expressed interest in bringing one to his Cottage Square in Ocean Springs, Miss.; and the city of Rock Hill, N.C., also has shown interest. For now, Low is concentrating on creating an alliance with the local school district, so the Learning Cottage project can be sponsored by the entity it’s intended to help.

With two Katrina Cottages already on the ground (see sidebar below), DPZ continues to juggle several projects at once, says Matt Lambert, a designer for the firm. “Lowe’s is taking up a good portion of time at the moment, as it buys prototypes from different architects. They’re building a DPZ model at a Gentilly Lowe's, too."

A significant amount of DPZ's attention has been trained on HomeFront, a southwest Florida manufacturer of SIP panels that built Katrina Cottages II and IV, and will do the Duany/Dorney project in Bywater. "We're starting to do more regular housing prototypes with HomeFront, some larger ones," says Lambert. "Houses that are fairly affordable, not necessarily Katrina Cottages."

At the same time, DPZ is building on the work it did during the Louisiana charrettes earlier this year, studying panelizing systems and SIP-constructed designs, and how to generate good design no matter which system is used. "The fl ashing, eaves, base moldings, etc. -- we pulled it all together with HomeFront, figuring out how to make the SIP panels look good," says Lambert.

All of these efforts will be fruitless if bureaucracy, obsolete zoning, conventional building codes and good old-fashioned post-storm logistics get in the way -- and in some places, they're already threatening to.

Waveland, Miss., recently refused to allow Habitat for Humanity to build smaller homes within its city limits, stating that the lot sizes Habitat required were too small. It seems to follow that Katrina Cottages may find a similar closed door when they come knocking.

Of her Bywater, La., project, Dorney reports that subdividing the lot "took months and months to get approval because every agency in the city has to sign off on it -- and you can imagine how overwhelmed they are." A lengthy approval process through the Architectural Review Committee and the Historic District Landmark Committee has further delayed the project.

There are bright spots in the story, however, including a Sept. 29 announcement by U.S. Rep. Richard H. Baker, R-Baton Rouge, La., that House-Senate conferees on the Fiscal Year 2007 Homeland Security Appropriations bill have accepted legislative proposals by Baker to authorize the use of "Katrina Cottages" and other reforms of federal policy governing post-disaster long-term housing.

Provisions of Baker's bill, which passed the House Financial Services Committee unanimously on June 14, were included in the FEMA reform section of the Homeland Security spending bill, which now awaits approval by both chambers of Congress. For the displaced residents of the Gulf Coast, who are living in FEMA trailers or out of state, decisions like these can't come soon enough.

Born from catastrophic circumstances, the Katrina Cottage phenomenon is a hurricane in its own right. Almost every day, new reports of the Cottages' evolution make headlines, bringing simple, attainable, dignified and beautiful design one step closer for Americans from all walks of life.

Especially those who once called the Gulf Coast their home.


For breaking news and background information related to the Katrina Cottages, bookmark these Web sites:

Congress for the New Urbanism:

Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum People’s Design Award:

Cusato Cottages:

Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company:

Katrina Cottages

Learning Cottages:

Lowe’s Katrina Cottages:

Moser Design Group:

New Urban Guild:

New Urban Guild articles:

New Urban Guild Foundation Tool Foundry:

New Towns:

New Urban News:

Urban Design Associates:

USA Weekend Magazine Katrina Cottage Giveaway:


In yet another example of the Katrina Cottages’ flexibility, Nantucket, Mass., builder Michael Haigley is building a Nantucket version of a Cusato design — complete with a fireplace — to demonstrate the appeal of Katrina Cottages as guest quarters, even in ritzy neighborhoods with restrictive historic district guidelines.

“I met Marianne Cusato at the Builders’ Show in Orlando last January. I liked the cottage, liked how democratic [the new urbanists] were about their views, and it was contagious. So I decided to build one,” says Haigley.

A builder of high-end homes, Haigley “thought it would be interesting to show the small end of things. It’s a novel concept in Nantucket, because we just don’t build them that small here: Our main houses are 3,000 to 6,000 square feet.

Haigley’s interpretation will serve as a “second dwelling,” which means it will include major appliances, a small kitchen, a bath, and one large primary room. The cottage also will include an 8-by-14-foot screened porch that will have removable glass panels for year-round use.

Haigley will gussy it up even more, with a red cedar roof, wood gutters and downspouts, western red cedar trim, a cathedral ceiling, hardwood floors, vertical wood paneling. Nantucket-specific details will include white cedar shingles on the exterior, authentic double-hung windows that match the main residence, a four-lite Dutch door, and more. “It will match all of the traditional Nantucket building materials, except it will be diminutive in size,” says Haigley.

After a seven-month wait for permits, Haigley has finally been approved to dig his foundation hole. He’s antsy to get started and optimistic about the result. “With any luck, I’ll have it finished by late spring 2007.”


Several Katrina Cottages have moved past the sketch phase into full-fledged working drawings; some have even been built. Here’s a list of the completed ones thus far.

Cottage I Marianne Cusato Ocean Springs, Miss.
Cottage II Steve Oubre, others Arabi, La.
Cottage III Eric Moser Pass Christian, Miss.
Cottage IV Marianne Cusato Ocean Springs, Miss.
Cottage V Andrés Duany New Orleans, La.
Cottage VI Andrés Duany Sarasota, Fla.
Cottage VII Steve Mouzon Varies (it travels)
Cottage VIII Steve Mouzon Silver Spring, Md.
Source: Steve Mouzon, New Urban Guild