Katrina's Cottage Industry
Storm Spawns a Second, Factory-Built Dwelling

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 4, 2006

The Katrina Cottage is the house a storm built.

Two weeks ago, the original yellow shelter that was designed in Mississippi won a People's Design Award from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. By tomorrow, a second-generation model, set on a parking lot at the Gwendolyn E. Coffield Community Center in Silver Spring, is expected to be polished and ready for visitors.

Both models are architect-designed and light-filled. The one in Maryland, called the Katrina Kernel Cottage, is also steel-framed and, despite being factory built, quite charming.

The architect, Steve Mouzon, is a New Urbanist from Miami and a noted developer of pattern books in the neo-traditional style. Southerners will recognize the cottage as a shotgun house, but from the front it also resembles a small Greek temple. A pitched roof is supported by four Doric-style columns that demarcate the front porch, and the 523-square-foot box is packed with details that would make Thomas Jefferson proud (including lathe-turned columns and an architectural niche defining the master bedroom).

Like the original Katrina Cottage, the new model was created to help alleviate the housing crisis along the Gulf Coast, where more than 50,000 homes were obliterated last year by Hurricane Katrina.

On a sunny afternoon this week, Ruben Keating, site representative for Housing International, showed off the Maryland model's "keeping room," which contains a kitchenette, dining area, home office corner, bunk beds, a master bed nook surrounded by privacy curtains, a tiled bathroom with slate floor and a closet. Two more modules containing two bedrooms and a living room will be added when the cottage is donated to a Montgomery County resident early next year, bringing the square footage close to 2,000.

For now, 10 tall windows flood the interior with light; walls are white-painted tongue-and-groove paneling over solid pine wainscoting; and the floor is laid with environmentally correct bamboo over steel plates. "This home would last you 300 years," Keating said, as he pointed out the 2-by-6 steel framing and steel roof joists.

Only a few cottages have been erected in the hurricane zone. But the concept has taken on a life of its own far from the storm's path.

Two dozen versions of the Katrina Cottage have been designed. A New Urban Guild has been created to police standards and ensure the continuance of traditional elements, such as peaked roofs and front porches, which make the cottages as nostalgic as any imaginary Grandma's house. There's a Web site with blow-by-blow accounts of design feats.

The original Katrina Cottage was humbly conceived as an alternative to FEMA's emergency trailers. It grew out of an architects' workshop during the Mississippi Renewal Forum, a rebuilding effort organized by New Urbanist planner Andres Duany weeks after the hurricane struck. A New York architect, Marianne Cusato, sketched out a 308-square-foot dwelling using a scaled-down Mississippi coastal cottage as her model.

The iconic design quickly became the Little House That Could, a nostalgic porch in the post-storm chaos. Had it been built, it would have cost about $35,000 -- the same amount that FEMA was paying for trailers. Unfortunately for Gulf Coast residents, the 14-by-22-foot dwelling was semi-permanent housing rather than temporary, so it did not comply with FEMA's mandate to supply emergency shelter.

Cusato persevered, though. This month, Lowe's outlets in the Gulf Coast will begin to sell her Katrina Cottage design as kits.

Advocates -- New Urbanist designers, manufacturers and consumer publications such as Cottage Living -- talk about the potential for cottages almost anywhere, for almost anyone. The factory-built cottage in Silver Spring could have lasting impact on how houses are made and how much they cost.

As a manufactured home, it is the latest iteration in an unfinished design revolution that began generations ago. "I'm sorry to say it took a hurricane for the change to take place," says Ray Taylor, president of Housing International of Sausalito, Calif., which manufactured the Silver Spring cottage. Taylor believes the market for manufactured housing could be worth "billions" of dollars. He points out that steel-framed houses have no squeaks, termites or other pests, can withstand fire, the weight of snow on the roof, hurricane-force winds and earthquakes.

"Let's not put too much emphasis on affordability," Taylor says. "Let's not limit it."

The next wave of the Katrina Cottage phenomenon is taking shape in Ocean Springs, Miss. The firm of Tolar LeBatard Denmark Architects is developing a subdivision of Katrina Cottages called Cottage Square. It promises a variety of house styles provided by different architects, including one confirmed modernist, a devotee of Frank Lloyd Wright.

According to the firm's Michael LeBatard, the goal is to create a neighborhood of housing options to educate people trying to rebuild. Grants of as much as $150,000 per house are expected to become available soon, and the architects hope that issues of value and livability will come together in a Katrina Cottage.

"By doing what we are doing, we are giving architecture to the masses of people," LeBatard says. "We owe it to the people. Ethically and morally, this is what we can do."

The Katrina Kernel Cottage will be on view at 2450 Lyttonsville Rd. through next month.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company