Chicago Tribune Company
Chicago Tribune
January 29, 2006 Sunday
By John Handley, Special to the Tribune

Starting over
Cottage pitched as one small step toward rebuilding the Gulf Coast

The little yellow house may have an impact far larger than its size.

Only 300 square feet, about the area of a one-car garage, it was toured by thousands of conventioneers at the International Builders Show held here Jan. 11-14. Called the Katrina Cottage, it is a prototype for emergency housing for victims of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast and New Orleans Aug. 29.

Displayed in the parking lot of the Orlando Convention Center, the cottage was just one innovation at the convention attended by 100,000 members of the National Association of Home Builders. Many are eyeing potential business, but the rebuilding of the cities ravaged by the hurricane must wait for complex planning to be completed.

In the meantime, these developments emerged from the show that could affect the revitalization: Planning for rebuilding Mississippi's Gulf Coast is far ahead of Louisiana's blueprint for New Orleans. Manufactured housing -- concrete, log and modular homes and panelized construction -- could be a more immediate solution to the need for new housing.

As for the Katrina Cottage, it will be transported to Ocean Springs, Miss., one of the hard-hit Gulf towns, and donated to a homeless family. "People say the cottage is cute. More than that, it could be the start of something major," said Marianne Cusato, its designer and owner of Cusato Cottages in New York. "It could be a substitute for FEMA trailers, which are not long-term solutions. But cottages of this type have the potential to be expanded and used as permanent residences. "They cost from $25,000 to $35,000 and are hurricane-rated to withstand winds of 130 miles an hour. The 300-square-foot model can be for a family of four, but they can be 600 square feet and larger," she said. "We're starting to talk with manufacturers now. It would take about two weeks to assemble them at a home site."
Though small, the cottage was crowded with as many as 30 people at a time during the show. It can be factory-built or stick-built on-site.

"Smaller and affordable doesn't have to be ugly," Cusato said.

The Katrina Cottage was introduced by Andres Duany, architect and planner and advocate of New Urbanism, a type of traditional town planning. Duany said he was asked by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to coordinate the planning for rebuilding 11 of the state's coastal towns. The Gulf Coast needs more than 50,000 new dwellings, according to the commission. "The little Katrina Cottage was built in 20 days. A lot of companies raised money and gave products for it," said Duany, a principal of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., based in Miami, and leader of the Mississippi Renewal Forum. "Families can live in this type of house and add onto it over time. Trailers, though, are hideously ugly. They cause social problems and lower real estate values," Duany said.

He predicted the Mississippi Gulf will be rebuilt because the property along the 120-mile coast is so valuable. "The Gulf will come back fast. It offers a tremendous opportunity for builders, and it should be easy for them to get permits. This is a pivotal point for the development industry," Duany said. "The Gulf is entirely different from New Orleans, where the low-lying land never should have been built on," Duany said. He added, though, that the Katrina Cottage could be adapted to New Orleans. "It would work architecturally and historically there."

The Big Easy is not facing an easy road to recovery. New Orleans' population of 470,000 plummeted after Katrina. Reconstruction costs have been pegged at $100 billion or more. A massive amount of new and rehabbed housing will be needed to attract former residents. Instead of waiting for damaged neighborhoods to be cleared, one national home builder is considering putting up housing on the city's periphery.

KB Home, based in Los Angeles, hopes to construct homes on 3,000 acres in Jefferson Parish, a 30-minute drive from New Orleans. "We hope to break ground in six months," said Caroline Shaw, senior vice president of corporate communications for KB Home. "The homes will be market rate with a mix of entry-level and move-up designs.
"People want to come back to the heart of the city, but that's not possible yet," Shaw said. She said it is too early to reveal details of the project, but it could be in the range of 8,000 to 10,000 homes.

One resident of the New Orleans area estimates the rebuilding timetable this way. "The removal of debris, including 200,000 cars, will take the rest of 2006. The city will decide what to build and where to build it in 2007, and construction will start in 2008," said Richard Wallace, vice president of communications for the Southern Forest Products Association, based in Kenner, La.

"This is a crippled city that will need a lot of federal government help. The damage was not caused by rain, but by heavy winds and water that broke through poorly designed and built levees," Wallace said.

Not only is New Orleans below sea level, but also much of the housing that was destroyed was built on land that was marsh and swamp. One New Orleans native has doubts about the future of the city. "They may rebuild the poverty," said Joey Garon, who left New Orleans in 1990 and is now vice president of operations for the Bonita Bay Group, a real estate development firm in Bonita Springs, Fla.

"New Orleans had a lot going for it -- the music, bars, restaurants, the history. But it was decaying before Katrina and suffering from political mismanagement. They knew a hurricane was coming sometime and did nothing to prepare for it," Garon said. "Now public housing has a chance to be rebuilt in a positive way. But will it happen?"

Getting started on rebuilding could be hampered by shortages of both building materials and skilled labor in the Gulf region. Ready to solve these problems are the manufacturers of systems-built housing that is trucked to the site and assembled. "I'm excited about participating in the rebuilding," said Buddy Jenkins, CEO of Safeway Homes, a modular house builder based in Pearl, Miss. After a modular home is delivered from the factory, it only takes a day or two to set it up on the foundation, and then two or three weeks to install the plumbing, electrical and porches."
He added that modular houses are priced about the same as site-built homes and appreciate in the same way.
"There's been a surge in manufactured homes after the hurricanes," said David Seiders, chief economist of the National Association of Home Builders. "Rebuilding takes a lot of time, and the situation in New Orleans is worse because of the flood damage. A lot of people will not go back at all. Issues now include insurance and fixing the levees. I don't see much rebuilding there soon," Seiders said. He estimated the total of new houses to be built this year as a result of the hurricanes will be 45,000. "That's not a large number, considering the devastation."

Charles Bevier, editor of Systems Built Magazine, estimates that 250,000 to 500,000 new homes will be needed for reconstruction. Bevier noted, though, that some misconceptions persist about modular. "In the South, when you say modular, many people think FEMA trailer." "We'll be a huge supplier in the revitalization," said Michael Wnek, senior vice president of Palm Harbor Homes, a modular builder based in Plant City, Fla. "We've already shipped 700 to 800 to the Gulf. "We can replicate housing in the New Orleans style. A lot of them will be built on stilts. If they're smart, they'll be 8 feet above the water level of a 100-year flood," Wnek said.

All rebuilding on the Mississippi Gulf Coast will be facilitated by Gavin Smith, who recently was appointed by the governor as director of the office of recovery, planning and policy. "The Mississippi coast is almost like a clean slate," he said. "Rebuilding will be from the ground up. "We need builders to take into account the architectural history of the area. We need craftsmen to replicate the historical properties that were lost. Thousands of existing buildings will be elevated on their foundations. New flood advisory maps will help. It's going to take years to do the job," Smith said.

The Mississippi Renewal Forum made recommendations for 11 communities hit by the storm -- Gulfport, Biloxi, Bay St. Louis, D'Iberville, Pass Christian, Gautier, Moss Point, Ocean Springs, Pascagoula, Long Beach and Waveland.
One of the suggestions is to grind up storm debris and use it to raise low areas. This was the strategy used after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, when debris from destroyed Loop buildings was dumped at the lakeshore to form Grant Park. The forum also released a pattern book for rebuilding that reflects the architectural traditions from French, Spanish and English colonists.

The house plans for the Gulf point out that builders must check the FEMA requirements for minimum heights above sea level, to limit damage from the next hurricane. "The coast is vulnerable," Smith said. "We need to rebuild it stronger than it was before."
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Katrina Cottage
Starts at 300 square feet
$25,000 to $35,000
Can withstand winds up to 130 m.p.h.
Suited to expansion
Adaptable to local architecture
Available in studio and one-bedroom configurations