Monday, March 20, 2006

The Katrina Cottage Revisited

Photoblogger is down--why am I not surprised?--so I've got an inline image of The Katrina Cottage above to go along with a series of links, starting with Ashley Morris, who found this story from the online Pic:

Jake Borrouso of Chalmette lost his home and mother to Hurricane Katrina. He now lives with his girlfriend in a 28-foot trailer in Picayune, Miss.

The quarters are tight, and Borrouso isn't looking forward to spending hurricane season in the trailer.

The trailer "rocks in the slightest wind now. This is ridiculous," Borrouso said.

So after touring one of the small hurricane-proof homes that some are touting as an alternative to trailers, Borrouso left with one question.

"Why not do this in the first place instead of the trailers?" he asked.

State and local officials are wondering the same thing.

As is everyone else--that is, everyone with a brain, Senator Hatch.

I also came across the same article with additional research courtesy at Da Po' Blog--where FEMA excuses about prohibitions on "permanent structures" are demonstrably shown to be as false as government assurances about the levees (side note: Donald Powell, according to today's NY Times, has finally realized, in his words, "...that while Mississippi was an act of God, Louisiana was an act of God and man. There were some flaws. The levees breached."). Well, Mr. Powell, now that you can finally see, don't stare directly into the sun...

But I digress: getting back to the topic, I couldn't help but notice (and I'm guessing others have too--apologies in advance for not having any specific citations) that the little houses (designed to allow for expansion, by the way) not only look FAR more comfortable than a typical trailer, cost roughly the same or a little less than a typical trailer AND are safer, but bear remarkable resemblence to another structure initially built for simple utility: the San Francisco earthquake shack. Which got me searching some more--and, sure enough, at least one major news outlet likewise noticed:

The Gulf Coast's unique housing crisis has given birth to a cute, yellow, 308-square-foot house known as the Katrina Cottage, which has put a smile on the face of just about everyone who traipsed across the white-trimmed threshold to see how the concise layout could shelter a family of four under its charming pitched roof.

Inside on the walls, at showings in Orlando in January and Ocean Springs, Miss., in February, architectural drawings by cottage designer Marianne Cusato and South Carolina architect Eric Moser detailed how various models of the Katrina Cottage could serve as a "Grow House" that would over time be expanded to a bigger house, or maybe even just provide a rear guest cottage to a new house to be built at the front of the lot.

Outside on the broad front porch, visitors lingered on its built-in benches.

"Everyone walks through and says 'Wow, it's so big,' " said Cusato, a New Yorker whose design was the first to be built of more than 100 created for the Mississippi Renewal Forum under the leadership of New Urbanism co-founder Andres Duany last fall. "Three hundred square feet and they say it's big."

It's big enough to make people stop and think, especially here in the Bay Area. Will we be able to get one of these instead of a travel trailer when the Big One knocks down three or four times as many dwellings as Mississippi lost in Katrina? And with an adorable, friendly structure like this costing only about $35,000 to build, why must Bay Area starter homes cost half a million dollars?

The answers are -- as usual when talking about Bay Area housing -- a little depressing and more than a little complex.

That is, where answers exist...

"I think this is a nifty little design, and I think it's really hitting a good need and it's a wonderful thing to offer people. I was fantasizing myself about how you'd add on to it, and I think you can. And I can think if the Hayward or San Andreas fault really busts loose in this part of the world, there'd be a lot of people who have a plot of land who'd like to have something like this on it quickly."

Ratcliff is president of the Bay Area's only 100-year-old architectural firm, which was started by his grandfather, Walter, just before the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. That was the year the San Francisco Relief Corp. built more than 5,000 structures of 140 to 252 square feet, along what is now Park Presidio Boulevard, that have become known as the "earthquake shacks."...

...there are still people in earthquake cottages in San Francisco, according to the Western Neighborhoods Project Web site,, which reports that 5,000 of the structures were hauled off to various parts of the city, where 23 still stand. Fortunately, they were made of durable materials, with fir flooring, redwood walls and cedar-shingled roofs, and were easily and attractively expanded into larger homes.

Indeed, you can go to the site and see for yourself how nice some of these structures look. Additionally, as I noted last week or so, the book Tiny Houses mentions them along with other small structures suitable for temporary or permanent housing.

Of course, there's also the option of soulless existence in any of a number of various flavors of McMansions sprouting like weeds between NOLA and BR (around Gonzales it's actually pretty scary to see the sheer volume of construction)...but is that what people REALLY want? Perpetual suburbia? I'd like to think not...

That said, I don't think the Katrina Cottage is the perfect end-all solution--but it's a hell of a lot better of a start than trailer park city...or no plan at all, and, goddamnit, even fits the entrepeneurial paradigm often touted by conservative governments, but rarely put into practice (which speaks volumes, eh?). And IF we had a government genuine concerned with the welfare of its citizens, I think we'd see a lot more emphasis placed on options like the cottage and a lot less on trailers. Alas, though, this seems to sum up perfectly the inertia shown at the highest levels:

Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran told FEMA she'd prefer more cottages and fewer trailers -- "This has a lot more character and a lot more soul than a FEMA trailer," she told the Biloxi Sun Herald last month -- but the government agency has declined to assist. Emeryville architect Christopher "Kit" Ratcliff said he could see why after viewing the plans.

"One of the problems that I see with it, and I probably shouldn't say this, is that it looks nice," Ratcliff said. "I think the government has a very hard time giving things away to people or underwriting things that go beyond some sort of bureaucratically understood minimal gesture.

Between that and sheer Team Bush's pretty amazing you've even got a prototype.

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