Design November 2009

Houses of the Future

Four years after the levee failures, New Orleans is seeing an unexpected boom in architectural experimentation. Small, independent developers are succeeding in getting houses built where the government has failed. And the city's unique challenges—among them environmental impediments, an entrenched culture of leisure, and a casual acquaintance with regulation—are spurring design innovations that may redefine American architecture for a generation.
3105 Law Street

From his front porch, Mingko Aba can look across the street to the house where he was born 59 years ago. Actually, he’s looking slightly downward at it, because his new house is built about five feet up, on piers. He also has a pretty good vantage point for seeing the progress in his Upper Ninth Ward neighborhood, which flooded but was spared the tsunami that swept homes off their foundations across the canal in the Lower Ninth after the levee broke.

Aba rode out Katrina at home, clambering up to his roof when the water reached his ceiling. The next day, a neighbor came with a boat that had drifted by, and the pair helped ferry other stranded people to the top floor of a church, and then went looking for groceries. They picked pink grapefruit and blood oranges from the upper branches of Aba’s citrus trees, and at a flooded corner store, they discovered that packaged food has an unadvertised advantage: it’s airtight and bobs to the surface.

After spending three years in Alabama, Aba came back for his brother’s funeral and decided it was time to rebuild. On a neighbor’s suggestion, he contacted Build Now, a nonprofit founded in 2007 that helps homeowners navigate the whole process, from arranging to demolish your old house, to finding financing for the new one, to the actual construction.

Aba’s new home, which he moved into earlier this year, is just 14 feet wide, but it has a restrained grandeur, like a miniature Greek temple on a mount. On the outside, with its rectangular columns and tall triangular pediment, it’s all but indistinguishable from the Greek Revival shotgun houses found on narrow lots throughout the city’s older neighborhoods.

The historic design is not by accident. William Monaghan, the architect and developer who founded Build Now, is another representative of the utopianism that sees salvation in the architectural grammar of a historic city. “There’s a place for everything, and it’s great that people are doing all kinds of design, but I wanted to fit in with the neighborhood character,” he said. “I didn’t want to try to get somebody to move back to New Orleans and make all those decisions and sink all that money into something, and then say, ‘Oh yes, and you also have to be challenged by unfamiliar architecture.’”

Monaghan, who grew up in New Orleans and is now based in New York, had been appalled at the city’s anemic rebuilding efforts during his visits home after Katrina. So he founded a nonprofit with the slogan “Build new. Build high. Build now.” The idea was to provide one-stop shopping for traditional, reasonably priced homes for the displaced. Complete houses, including appliances, begin at about $100,000, without land or foundation work.

Monaghan set out to create eight prototype homes based on classic New Orleans styles. “Having lived there so long, I thought I knew everything,” he said. “I’m an architect, I’ve done a lot of historic preservation work. I thought I’d just design some houses that look like New Orleans houses.”

That proved trickier than he’d thought. He explored the city with tape measure in hand, conducting a sort of architectural phrenology to figure out the proportions and details that make New Orleans houses so New Orleans—the depths of the porches, the sizes of the pediments, the angles of the hip roofs, the ratios of height to width. It turned out that while these measurements tended to be quirky and irregular, they made a lot of sense for the culture and climate of New Orleans. For instance, almost every old house has tall ceilings that allow residents to live below the worst of the summer heat. Single shotgun cottages lack hallways, allowing for efficient cross-ventilation in every room. And many center-hall cottages use transoms to make the walls porous and keep the air moving. “You sort of take this stuff for granted,” Monaghan said, “but it’s a tremendous environmental response.”

Monaghan built a model house and started staging community events, like crawfish boils, to get the word out. People found him; they’ve contracted for 16 homes to date, and Monaghan has since designed six new models based on requests from buyers.

The great appeal of Build Now is its utter simplicity. Recreating a home from the past seems a needed balm for this wounded city. Where Duany seems to want to harness his projects to a broader crusade, Monaghan’s mission is more straightforward: build houses that New Orleanians have shown, through a process of architectural natural selection spanning more than a century, that they love.

“What we’re learning is that these traditions are not just fashions,” said Michael Mehaffy of Sustasis. “They’re rooted in the real adaptive evolution of a place.”

2036 Seventh Street

URBANbuild Prototype 04 in New Orleans’s Central City neighborhood was completed last spring. You might pass Duany’s or Monaghan’s homes without noticing them. Not this one. It’s a gleaming white box sitting flush against two streets on a corner lot, hung with large sliding panels of polycarbonate plastic. It looks like the package in which one of the Victorian shotguns nearby was delivered, and the sheer incongruity of the thing made me laugh when I first saw it. But loitering on the back porch—basically a deep rectangular cut taken out of one corner of the box—I found it impossible not to feel part of the neighborhood, perhaps more so than at any of the other new houses I’d visited.

This is one of four homes developed since Katrina by the URBANbuild studio at the Tulane School of Architecture. (The third house was featured in a reality-TV series on the Sundance Channel last year.) Some 25 students worked to design and build it; electrical, plumbing, HVAC, and drywall work were contracted out. Standing on a crime-racked block of the city, it has the feel of guerrilla architecture, built in defiance of its surroundings.

The students started with the concept of sliding plastic panels, which, in theory, will withstand the pummeling of a hurricane. They then took some of the common architectural vocabulary of New Orleans—shutters, porch, front stoop—and distilled them to their essential elements, adding exaggerations of scale and splashes of color (the segments of the box cut away for the stoop and porches are painted lime green). Even so, the house is practical, like a cabinet from Ikea—when not locked into position for hurricanes, the panels can be moved around for privacy, or to shade the porches from sun.

“We’re trying to get the students to be inventive, creating ideas that maybe other people can mimic,” says Byron Mouton, the Tulane professor who directs the studio. All of the houses are aggressively contemporary in style. Reaction has been divided among residents: in general, the older generation hates them, and younger folks think they’re fly.

Scott Bernhard, director of the Tulane City Center, which has worked with URBANbuild and other community projects at Tulane, defended the style. “To me, it’s respectful of the old buildings to be attentive to scale or urban pattern, but it’s not respectful of those old buildings to imitate,” he said. “In some ways, imitation and mockery are too close together. To us, having a gabled roof at the front of the building is far less important than engaging the street.”

Two years ago, at a conference on traditional building held at the New Orleans convention center, the architect and New Urbanist Steve Mouzon asked a crowd of contractors and architects to think about a basic point. “The very core of sustainability,” he said, “can be found in a simple question: ‘Can it be loved?’”

All those solar panels from the first eco-boom in the 1970s, and those clunky, angular houses they sat atop? Most are demolished and gone. “The carbon footprint of a building is meaningless once its parts are carted off to a landfill in a generation or two,” Mouzon told the crowd. The rebuilding of New Orleans by the people who love it, he suggested, may provide the most lasting green lesson of all.

New Orleans remains a traumatized city: 65,000 homes still sit unoccupied, the population is still down by about a quarter, rents are up by 40 percent, and violent crime is endemic. But the strong and enduring interest in rebuilding here—and the steady trickle of residents moving back, along with the unabated flow of volunteers coming to help out—shows that it is a place people care deeply about. That fact should not be overlooked.

Consider that Habitat for Humanity has nearly completed its high-profile Musicians’ Village in the Upper Ninth Ward, including a cluster of 72 attractive, small, traditional-style homes conceived by the New Orleans natives Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. And that another New Orleanian, the actor Wendell Pierce, has established a nonprofit with plans to build hundreds of environmentally friendly homes in badly flooded Pontchartrain Park, where he grew up. In nearby Gentilly, Project Home Again, founded by Barnes& Noble Chairman Leonard Riggio, has put up $20million to build elevated bungalows for former residents, and the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana has funded the construction of 21 low-cost modern shotguns in Central City.

Meanwhile, the city’s 270 or so neighborhood associations, once little more than social clubs dabbling in the occasional crime-watch program, have become increasingly sophisticated in the language of rebuilding and partnering with outside experts—whether from charities, the business world, or even Hollywood. This isn’t exactly the bottom-up self-building that Andres Duany envisions. But neither is it Robert Moses–style planning from on high. A community-driven, middle-out planning style has emerged, and the kind of housing it seems to favor fuses smart modern design with the city’s traditional notions of space, leisure, and community. As with jazz, gumbo, and some remarkable cocktails, this style illustrates the city’s talent for crafting extraordinary things from the ordinary stuff it has at hand.

New Orleans can offer plenty of lessons in green living—and it could have before the storm, had anyone asked. How to build beautiful small houses on narrow lots. How to build compact, walkable neighborhoods. How to adapt buildings to the environment, with deep porches and high ceilings and small, leafy yards. These are the things that people loved about New Orleans—and they’re the things that architects interested in sustainable design most want to build right now. The past here has much to inform the future, not just for New Orleans, but for an entire country that needs to rethink the way it designs its cities and homes. New Orleans won’t be rushed—it never is—but the chances are good that whatever results here will be loved.

Presented by

Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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