ARCHITECTURE- Gulf Coast rebuild: Form should follow function

Like reports from a war zone, the news from New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast doesnt quite capture the reality on the ground.

You cant exaggerate the situation down there, says UVA architecture professor John Quale. I thought I would be prepared when I visited Mississippi in March, but I was not at all prepared. It looked like the storm had just gone through.

We hear a lot about celebrities raising money for the Gulf Coast, about architects dreaming up fantastic new ways to rebuild New Orleans, but not much about what actually needs to be done.

Fixing sewer systems, inspecting buildings, doing paperwork, connecting traffic lights, figuring out budgets, digging ditches, working through the legislative process– all the jobs that civil servants do to make a community run just arent as exciting as Bruce Springsteen dissing the prez and singing a special song for the Crescent City.

How do you take the ordinary things and make them seem glamorous? UVA architecture professor William Morrish wonders. If you dont have basic services, you cant get things done. As an architect, Im thinking, Wow, I could design a lot of nice, beautiful buildings down here, but who's going to deliver the materials? Whos going to inspect the building? How do I get a building permit?

We should be saying we have to totally rebuild New Orleans, and it will cost billions, and it will take us 10 years, Morrish says bluntly. Thats the scale of the disaster. Thats the kind of commitment needed to truly address the situation down there.

Quale and Morrish, along with other UVA architecture faculty members, have been doing a lot lately to address those realities. Morrish shot to fame two years ago when he was a finalist for the design of New York's Freedom Tower. An urban and environmental planner as well as an architect, he now serves on New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagins rebuilding committee, while Quale and his students are set to build an experimental modular house in Mississippi.

In addition, lecturer Elizabeth Roettger has led students on a trip to help clear debris in the devastated area, while faculty members Maurice Cox and Robin Dripps took their graduate students down to survey the situation and come up with design solutions.

Processes were destroyed, not just houses, says Morrish. Its still just a carcass of a city, and theres no one there to do the ordinary things to make a community work.

Morrish points out that the sewer and water system is still not functioning well, and that water supply itself could be an issue. And then theres the leveestrying to figure out how to rebuild them and where to get the money.

So far, its Quales project, though small in scale, that seems the most hopeful. Instead of studying the situation, or coming up with designs that may or may not get built, Quale and his students are actually building a house in Gautier, Mississippi in late May in coordination with Habitat for Humanity.

In fact, its a project that got its practical start right here in Charlottesville. As the Hook reported last December, Quales ecoMOD design-build project resulted in the construction of a modular low-cost, high-efficiency home in the Fifeville neighborhood. The 1,290-square-foot, three bedroom modular house on 7-1/2 Street was put together in UVA's Milton Airport hanger by Quale and his students, then trucked to the location and craned onto the foundation.

"Unlike most architectural programs," Quale says, "in which students pursue their own design goals and rarely see their work leave the page, this project required them to check their egos and work as a team." Over the course of a year, Quale's students collaborated on the design, then actually built it last summer.

In addition to an open, light-filled floor plan, which makes it seem bigger than it actually is, the house also has structural insulated panels that bolster its energy efficiency. Now, Quale and his students plan to use the same idea, and the same practical, can-do attitude, to build a similar kind of house in Mississippi.

After Katrina hit, says Quale, We got to expand the ecoMOD project. I came up with some schematic designs, then handed them off to my students.

Working within the strict budget that Habitat gave them, Quale and his students set about designing a modular house that would feel larger than it was, withstand the elements, and save energy. By increasing ceiling heights to give a perception of largeness, inserting exterior space into the mass of the building, and using a new insulated panel material called thermasteel, Quale believes theyve come up with a winner.

The thermasteel panels are very lightweight, but very strong, says Quale. They can resist hurricane winds and wont rot if the house gets flooded. In addition, the lightweight steel bays are filled with a foam that makes the house very energy efficient.

Though Habitat isnt accustomed to building such contemporary looking houses, Quale hopes the organization will come around to seeing the benefits, both aesthetic and practical, of building these kinds of modular houses, especially since Habitat is planning to build a warehouse where modular housing is assembled, says Quale.

Habitat told us that people dont want these contemporary designs, says Quale, but I think they do. The project in Fifeville proved that.
Still, Quale thinks that architectural solutions should have their limits when its comes to the larger task of rebuilding the area. For example, he is critical of those pushing an aesthetic agenda on the people of Mississippi, of turning the devastated areas into an experiment in new urbanism.

He singles out new urbanism co-founder Andres Duany, whose firm Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour has asked to coordinate the rebuilding of 11 Gulf Coast towns. Indeed, a press release on Duanys website describes a taskforce of 100 New Urbanists descending on the Mississippi coast to improve Mississippi built landscape and revamp building and development codes.

Theyre trying to impose this new design on Mississippi, says Quale, instead of letting people decide what they want. Tying in aesthetics with urban planning is a recipe for disaster.

John Quale
PHOTO by dan addison

ecoMOD2: UVA architecture faculty and students hope their modular house design will help rebuild the Gulf Coast