Houses, no matter how small, could fit the coast

Designs from less than 300 square feet on up aim to reinforce South Mississippi’s character.

The Gulf Coast of Mississippi needs to gird itself against a flood of mass-produced houses that have little in common with the homes built in the region over the past two centuries. So said many of the participants in the Mississippi Renewal Forum as they went about creating dozens of designs that would strengthen the established — and now endangered — character of the coastal communities.

Some of the new urbanists’ designs were for temporary dwellings needed immediately by displaced residents. Others were for permanent homes, ranging from prefabricated Habitat for Humanity dwellings to larger, mid-priced residences. The vast majority of the designs carry on the traditions of the Gulf Coast — traditions that could be disrupted if stock builder houses or standard factory-made houses suddenly proliferate, as many fear will happen.

Marianne Cusato produced three versions of an emergency dwelling that she estimated could be manufactured or built on site for about $25,000 to shelter workers or displaced residents. Each of the three 294 sq. ft. cottages compensates for its diminutive size by having two bunk rooms rather than standard bedrooms and by having an eight-foot-deep front porch and a style reminiscent of cottages built a century ago.

With its raised porch and simple but adequately detailed façade, the cottage promises to look charming rather than barebones. Other designers also picked up on the bunk bed idea to make the most of limited interior space. An emergency 280 sq. ft. dwelling by Gary Justiss includes a galley kitchen, full bath, and a “great room” with four bunks.

Architects and builders tried to generate designs that could be used by panelized, modular, and manufactured house builders and by volunteer organizations such as Habitat for Humanity. The Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Walton County, Florida, where Seaside is located, has “adopted” Hancock County, Mississippi, and hopes to have its volunteers build panelized houses for that county, which lies just east of the Louisiana border. Seaside developer Robert Davis is supporting the effort and is trying to ensure that the exterior aesthetic of the prefab houses surpasses the plain-Jane appearance of a typical Habitat house. The Institute for Classical Architecture & Classical America has also begun collaborating with Habitat nationally to design Habitat houses that fit within the architectural traditions of their communities.

Russell Meade, chief executive officer of New Hope Construction, which produces precut sections for Habitat affiliates, attended the Forum and reportedly liked elevations produced by R. John Anderson of New Urban Builders in Chico, California. Anderson is working to produce construction drawings for 12-foot-wide side-hall cottages. These will allow Habitat volunteers or others to site-build the cottages and will provide a baseline design that panelized and modular manufacturers can use in developing their own production drawings.

Anderson said Bechtel, the big engineering, construction, and project management company, has a contract with FEMA and is “interested in converting a major portion of the backlog of FEMA trailers … in Mississippi to modular.” The Forum called for setting up housing factories in many Gulf Coast communities, to provide employment as well as shelter.

Stephen Mouzon designed a one-room-wide 734 sq. ft. dwelling inspired by the southern Mississippi shotgun house. Shotgun houses, bungalows, and other old, vernacular house designs were strongly represented in the Forum’s output. Because many people will be forced by economic circumstances to start small and add on over the years, Eric Moser designed a house that would begin as a studio loft and would have other segments eventually added on — all on a 60-foot-wide lot. Some designed modular houses that could be attached. Rowhouses may play a larger role in the Gulf Coast’s future than they did in its past.

Because of the possibility of future floods and because of FEMA’s insistence on raising habitable interiors above the floodplain, some architects devised designs with elevated living areas. The challenge was how to do this without making the ground floor look empty and dull. Generally, the designers avoided placing houses on rudimentary stilts — an unhappy aesthetic that can be seen in coastal areas not only in Mississippi but also in locales as distant as Cape Cod.

Justiss sketched raised cottages with a shared elevator and with boardwalks connecting them. Christine Franck designed an apartment building for a “velocity zone” (an area vulnerable to a surge of stormwater). Its tall first level contains parking hidden behind handsome louvered doors and shutters. Her design suggested that with attractive materials and the right details, an uninhabited ground floor could be less off-putting than many new urbanists fear. In velocity zones, FEMA requires that the vulnerable lower levels of buildings be designed to let floodwaters flow through; in recent years this has often been accomplished by leaving the ground area open. But it often becomes a drab parking place, detracting from its surroundings. One of the chief alternatives is to install breakaway panels — which can look better than an empty space — between the buildings’ supports.

For those who prefer a more modern aesthetic, there were fewer designs to choose from. One intriguing contemporary design was Allison Anderson’s “shop/house,” a mixed-use complex that would have retail on the ground floor and tall living units with abundant window areas above the stores. At the peak would be roofs that project upward and outward. In the center of the complex would be a shared courtyard.

All the designs are posted at www.mississippirenewal.com. u