It's fast, dignified, affordable, and flexible. It's the Katrina Cottage, Marianne Cusato's nifty alternative to the ugly FEMA trailers that were handed out after Hurricane Katrina. Welcoming and concise, the prototype house's pitched metal roof, yellow fiber-cement siding, and vernacular simplicity has resonated with people worldwide.

The Katrina Cottage was born after DPZ's Andrés Duany asked the architects' team at last fall's Mississippi Renewal Forum to develop immediate affordable housing that respects the place. Cusato's design—the first to come from the charrette—was constructed at the International Builders' Show in Orlando last January. “You can show a cute drawing, but when you have something physical to show, there's a spark,” Cusato says. “We needed that forum for people to walk through and see that at 300 square feet, you can have a pretty nice house.” For Cusato, who just launched Marianne Cusato Associates last August, the eruption of interest has caused her to shift course, exploring possibilities for adapting the concept beyond the Gulf Coast. “My business was growing, then Katrina happened,” she says. “I've decided this is really what I want to invest myself in. I'm intrigued by the possibility that we might be able to come up with a partial solution to the major problem of affordability in this country.”

This April the Senate approved $1.2 billion to build the Katrina Cottages. But while Cusato has little control over public funding, she is working privately to disperse her design as plans to consumers, as a kit of parts that contractors or Habitat for Humanity volunteers could assemble, and as a turnkey modular system. The simple design works in most U.S. regions, she explains, and as the idea grows it could be adapted. Interest has come from abroad, too. Just recently, a non-government association asked her to work with a local architect to create a model for the people of Ghana.

“The Katrina Cottage goes beyond emergency housing to affordable housing,” Cusato says. “Why are people living in double-wide trailers? We're hoping to take this to the next level.” It's a small house, but a big idea.

Mark Pledger

verbatim what drew you to this path? “I see a real need—and opportunity—for change in the way we approach emergency and affordable housing. I think that by using ideas like the Katrina Cottage we can redefine the word affordable. The excitement that the prototype of Katrina Cottage 1 has generated gives me the encouragement I need to keep pushing the idea forward. We have support for the idea; now we need to make it a reality.”

what were you doing 10 years ago? “I was studying architecture at the University of Notre Dame.”

what do you hope to have achieved 10 years from now? “I'm hoping we can turn the panelized modular housing industry into a [vehicle for delivering] good design affordably to the masses. I'd love to personally work toward making that happen.”