What's a Katrina Cottage?

What we build.
March 31 2006 6:07 AM

The Katrina Cottage

Cute beats cutting-edge when it comes to temporary shelters.

FEMA trailers
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FEMA trailers

Say what you want about the new urbanists—whose ventures into suburban community-planning the architectural avant-garde regularly castigates as "nostalgic" and "Disneyfied"—like the Energizer Bunny, they just keep going. Their latest project is the unlikely sounding "Katrina Cottage," a substitute for the trailers that FEMA regularly deploys as temporary shelters.

At least, the trailers are supposed to be temporary. More than 13 years after Hurricane Andrew, people are still occupying FEMA trailers in South Florida. In Mississippi, Development Authority Director Leland Speed is quoted as saying, "We're still in FEMA trailers (seven months later). Can you imagine, 37,000 travel trailers with over 100,000 people in them (and hurricane season coming)?" So, why not provide something that is designed for permanent living, rather than camping? This question was raised during the Mississippi Renewal Forum, a planning workshop convened by new urbanists and state politicians in Biloxi last October. An architect from New York named Marianne Cusato drew up a design for a 400-square-foot cottage that could be erected on devastated lots and eventually be enlarged and added onto to become a permanent home.

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The strategy is not new. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the relief committee built 6,000 two-room wooden shelters (which they likewise called "cottages") in a dozen locations. The aim was to provide refugees with something better than the Army tents they had been using. The cottages were occupied for a year while the devastated city was cleaned up. But when people started to rebuild, they transported the huts to their lots and incorporated them into the new homes. Some of these original cottages still exist today.

Katrina cottage prototype
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Katrina cottage prototype

Last week, a larger version of Cusato's design, called Katrina Cottage II, was unveiled in a Wal-Mart supercenter parking lot in St. Bernard Parish, La. The 14-by-32-foot structure includes two small bedrooms, a kitchenette, a full bathroom, and a living room. In addition, there is extra space in a sleeping loft over the bedrooms. Part of the debate about new urbanism is its penchant for traditional styles. The little cottage, true to form, is described as "Creole-inspired." It has traditional windows and a steeply pitched tin roof supported by delicate brackets. It's anything but avant-garde. I've never lost my house in a flood, but I would imagine that "cute" would beat "cutting edge" every time.

The Katrina Cottages are homier than trailers, with full-size refrigerators and regular bathrooms. They're also sturdier and more wind-resistant (there will be more hurricanes). Like most production houses today, the cottages are built out of factory-made panels that are assembled on-site. These particular panels are made out of Styrofoam with exterior and interior skins of cement planks. This is energy efficient, but expensive. Wood framing, fiberglass insulation, and conventional vinyl siding would have been cheaper. So would asphalt shingles instead of the trendy tin roof.

First floor plan
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First floor plan

The designers have aimed at a construction cost of $60,000—a full $10,000 less than the current $70,000 that it costs FEMA to buy a trailer. This is an admirable goal, but they should have aimed lower. The cottages are approximately 650 square feet, and the cost works out to just less than $100 per square foot. That's pricey. A good production builder can bring in a conventional house, with all the bells and whistles that current homebuyers expect, for under $40 per square foot. It's true that the Katrina Cottage is designed to withstand flooding, on the assumption that some may be built in the flood plain, but a little "value engineering" would not be out of place. The Katrina Cottages are definitely a good idea, but they should be further simplified to reduce cost.

Both Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu have come out in support of the Katrina Cottage and have lobbied FEMA on behalf of the project. The lobbying is necessary because current law limits the federal government to offering only temporary housing assistance. Presumably this was a recognition that the emergency management agency should not be in the housing business. But it clearly is. The legislators, too, need to go back to the drawing board.

The Katrina Cottage was designed by a collective of architects and others including Andrés Duany, Steve Oubre, Susan Henderson, Eric Moser, Steve Mouzon, Matt Lambert, and Diane Dorney.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.