The small silver lining to the terrible storm cloud that was Hurricane Katrina was that within six weeks of the storm groups of architects and designers met to discuss innovative ways to meet the needs of people who had been displaced.
Marianne Cusato, a young architect in New York City's Greenwich Village, designed a replacement home for those ruined by the Gulf Coast storms that captured the Smithsonian Institution's first People's Design Award in October.
While people living in major metropolitan areas are accustomed to the idea of renting a 500-square-foot apartment, Cusato says that most homeowners cringe at the idea of their home being that tiny. She has always been interested in affordable housing and never inspired by high-end residential work.
"Design doesn't have to cost more, and there is such a need for building places for people that are dignified," she said.
Cusato's cottages are part of the first step for long-term housing to replace about 99,000 occupied FEMA trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Her efforts and that of Ocean Springs, Miss., architects Bruce Tolar and Michael LeBatard aim at building neighborhoods of cottages that fit the local vernacular yet are made to resist future storms, dry rot and mildew.
Another prototype developed by Home Front Homes, in Englewood, Fla., is built to survive being completely submerged in water. After a flood, one would remove the furnishings that have been wet, hose down the interior and replace electrical switches. The house is built with panels sandwiching cement boards and polystyrene foam and can withstand 140-mile-per hour winds.
The appealing part of all of these cottages is that they honor the charm of the region by recognizing how important it is to retain traditional design elements like front porches, wood windows, picket fences and wood siding. Cusato's plans, intended to survive hurricane-force winds, hit a nerve that surprised even her.
"It is a balancing act between economy of scale and design," she said. "How well people are responding to the design is the most exciting thing."
Her middle-of-the-road simple designs are soon to be made available to the nation through Lowe's. The storm models range in size from 544 square feet to 936 square feet and are two-bedroom cottages that will be made available after all of the needs in Gulf Coast states are met. Designs ranging from 300 square feet to 1,800 square feet will be available to the general public.
According to Ken Meinert, who led Habitat for Humanity's home-building efforts in the region, Cusato's design has drawn attention to the need for replacement shelter.These well-conceived small homes speak to the needs of many different groups, from seniors who are trying to downsize to younger families wrestling with affordability and lifestyle issues.
Most inspiring is the attitude that because of the smaller size, these homes can include quality and charming features. And they're designed so that as a family grows and can afford to do so, more space can be added in stages. The design is a winner - for everyone. *