The Gulf Coast Community Design Studio provides a model for rebuilding after Katrina.
October 16, 2008
Almost three years after Hurricane Katrina pushed a 30-foot-high surge of water through East Biloxi, Mississippi, tall weeds grow along streets once lined with houses. Biloxi’s casinos have been reconstructed, larger than their former selves. Many residents have returned to neighborhoods that missed the worst of the flooding. But those weeds rise in the easternmost part of the city, on a low-lying peninsula where almost half the houses were destroyed. It was a neighborhood of modest cottages and bungalows, with longtime residents who lived in the same houses for decades shopping and attending church alongside newer residents, primarily Vietnamese, who had revitalized the city’s fishing fleet. Many lost everything.
Rebuilding after the disaster has been slow here, but no community has handled the recovery of worst-hit neighborhoods better. Its success has been due to a unique partnership between the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio (GCCDS) and the East Biloxi Coordination Center.
Since London’s Great Fire in 1666 architects have seen disasters as opportunities to cast off the mistakes of the past and build bigger and better. The GCCDS, which has taken on most of the architectural-design duties of the partnership, views its mission as considerably more modest. “We work like a design practice,” says David Perkes, who heads the studio. Yet he rejects the big-picture role designers often choose. “You can’t have any impact without partnering with people already there.” The key question, Perkes underlines, is not what needs to be designed, but “How can we help?”
Perkes is an associate professor of architecture at Mississippi State University’s College of Architecture, Art + Design, based in Starkville. He had been helping low-income communities for seven years already, running the Jackson Community Design Studio. But as the enormous scope of Katrina’s devastation became clear, Perkes and his dean at Mississippi State decided to move the studio to the coast within weeks of Katrina’s landfall.
As the Biloxi move was being planned, local city councilman Bill Stallworth and Sherry-Lea Bloodworth—whom Architecture for Humanity (AFH) hired as its Gulf Coast coordinator—set up the East Biloxi Coordination Center in a flooded African Methodist Episcopal church to synchronize the work of dozens of relief organizations. “I met Bill Stallworth early on,” Perkes explains, “and he saw the benefit of having the architecture school involved. For us, it proved a really important decision.” The center not only coordinated the work of dozens of volunteer organizations, but it also surveyed the conditions of homes and helped local residents with cleanup. Since then, it has assigned case managers to help with paperwork for insurance and government grants, and assisted people in scoping out needed repair work and working with contractors. Nowhere else in the post-Katrina landscape do you encounter any government or nonprofit agency offering such systematic and comprehensive aid of the kind residents—especially those of limited means and education—have needed most.
At the start, the work ranged from “GIS mapping to crawling under a house,” Perkes says. The tasks were unglamorous but key: “If you help a community group make, say, a map, they see that architects have design skills. It introduces to people the possibility of improving their own environment.” As they faced utter devastation, many didn’t know they could do better than buy plans from hardware stores or use drawings that church groups had downloaded from the Internet. “It opened opportunities to do things people hadn’t thought about before,” Perkes says.
Only when homeowners’ needs are understood and financing is in place (cobbled together from savings, insurance, and grant programs from state, federal, and private sources) do center case managers refer them to the GCCDS for architectural services. Perkes says he typically has about $70,000 to build a house from the ground up, which means that the house must be small and exceedingly simple to erect, since volunteer labor is essential to stretch such limited funds.
Most of the new home designs subtly upgrade the hip-roofed cottages and small bungalows commonly found in the area. An attractive wheelchair ramp wraps some houses such as Edward Parker’s (opposite), since as many as a third of the residents, many retired, need mobility aid. In other houses, a few carpentry flourishes dress up a screened porch. Studio designers often push ceilings to the underside of rafters and add clerestory windows to aid ventilation and brighten the interiors.
“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.”