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.”