The Gulf Coast Community Design Studio provides a model for rebuilding after Katrina.
“We’re not looking to make a sweetened vernacular,” Perkes explains. “If anything, we’re looking for something energetic or a bit more robust.” A striking butterfly roof allows the house for Le and Nghia Tran (opposite) to fit gracefully under mature trees and directs runoff to a cistern to water the garden. Working with students from Penn State University, as well as University of Texas, Austin professor Serge Palleroni and Bryan Bell of the Charlotte-based social-outreach organization Design Corps, the studio designed a fretwork of wooden braces to enliven the underside of a house for Patricia Broussard (next spread), which is raised 13 feet. “I love my garden,” Broussard says. Even though it’s now a flight of stairs away? “You learn to adapt.”
One of the toughest problems would be easily overlooked by designers less attuned to the way people live. “We worry that neighborhoods with elevated houses may not be so socially active as when they had porches on grade,” Perkes says. Porches or generous landings at intermediate levels ease the transition. The designers try to program the ground level and encourage the gardening culture that has long flourished locally. “That’s important here, with the lush plantings and long growing season,” Perkes adds.
In contrast to the studio’s low-key pragmatism, in the months immediately after Katrina’s landfall AFH gave the GCCDS a $25,000 grant and provided vital support in establishing operations in Stallworth’s Center, and then, in the summer of 2006, it launched a high-profile model-home program. The prototypes had an ambitious agenda: to be wind- and flood-resistant and to lower environmental impact, and yet be attuned to the owner’s specific needs at an affordable cost. Studio Gang, Huff & Gooden, Marlon Blackwell, CP+D Design Workshop, and MC2 architects participated.
These prototypes were indeed innovative, but most cost too much to be built as designed. AFH, too, had to rely in part on volunteer labor, including the GCCDS’s: The studio created construction drawings for CP+D and designed a house for Louise Odom, her daughter, and grand-nephew, which replaces a more complex scheme by Studio Gang but retains the gestures of the original. Regardless of AFH’s helpmate, realizing the model homes required design simplification. “It’s hard to reconcile making a housing model for the future with the needs of a family still living in a FEMA trailer,” reflected AFH program manager Michael Grote on a visit last year.
AFH’s Biloxi houses are not alone in having to pare down their aspirations. A similarly ambitious prototype in New Orleans built by Global Green was completed largely as designed, but only because fund-raising covered much higher than anticipated costs. Make It Right, also in New Orleans, intends to build 150 model homes designed by prominent architects. It is likely to face similar barriers since government support—scandalously absent—or large-scale charitable funding would be needed to realize innovations yet to be embraced by market builders.
AFH’s seven-house prototype program is nearly finished, and it is winding down work in Biloxi to concentrate on its core mission of immediate disaster relief. “The AFH houses had somewhat larger budgets, and we have been able to learn from what they could devote more resources to,” says Perkes, citing beefed-up foundation designs. The East Biloxi Coordination Center now calls itself the East Biloxi Coordination, Relief, and Redevelopment Agency as it changes its focus to ongoing social services as well as rebuilding.
Grote is now working for the GCCDS, which relocated to larger quarters on the grounds of the East Biloxi Church in spring 2007. The redevelopment agency’s case managers share the studio space as well, tracking their clients on large blackboards. About a dozen people—a mix of full-time Mississippi State staff, interns, and volunteers, mainly from universities all over the country—share drawing boards and computers. Now the studio, having helped rehabilitate hundreds of homes and built about 30 new houses with the Biloxi Housing Authority, the local Back Bay Mission, Mercy Housing, and Habitat for Humanity, is growing. It’s opening branches with local partners in nearby Bay St. Louis and Moss Point, supported by expanded state funding.
With more than 2,000 empty lots in East Biloxi, the work of the studio so far, Perkes admits, “is a small chip out of a huge obligation.” He adds, “We’re trying to get our head around the fact that this could be a fragmented community for quite a while.” In the meantime, the studio is planning on a larger scale, mapping bayous and other vulnerable areas to assist the city of Biloxi in encouraging owners of risky sites to trade their property for plots on higher ground.
Perkes urges architects to “break down the professional structure” that tends to keep citizens at arm’s length. “It often gets in the way of being useful to the community.” The rewards can be different and perhaps more gratifying. Edward Parker says that the many people who designed and built his house “are in my prayers every night. Bless them and their families.”