Design professionals agree that rebuilding in the Gulf Coast region is frustrating. Despite soaring construction costs and insurance premiums, elusive government funding, and inscrutable building codes—or perhaps because of them—the nonprofit Architecture for Humanity (AFH) launched the Biloxi Model Home Program. AFH invited a dozen architects to create affordable, sustainable, and weather-resistant single-family house prototypes and showcased the results at a House Fair in East Biloxi, Miss., last August. Select families left homeless by Katrina were then given the opportunity to choose the prototypes they'd like the architects to adapt and build as their new residences.
“You have to figure out the best way to build it, make it energy-efficient, and reduce the cost of upkeep,” says Brett Zamore of Houston's Brett Zamore Design, a program volunteer. “But design was the most important part—making the house feel connected to the landscape and other houses.” New structures must sit anywhere from six feet to 12 feet above grade, so generating those physical and social ties was tricky. Mississippi's endemic heat, humidity, and thriving insect population, plus a construction budget of just $100 per square foot, further complicated matters.
Another participating architect, Jeanne Gang, AIA, describes her first encounter with a Gulf Coast summer as “a hit in the head.” As a consequence, the principal and founder of Chicago-based Studio Gang Architects decided to study the local environment first and let the design evolve from there. “We looked at vernacular models that showed how people in this climate lived without air conditioning,” she says. Other commonsense strategies such as shading and proper solar orientation go a long way toward satisfying program goals.
And yet those height requirements were the biggest problem to overcome—both practically and aesthetically. Zamore's house for the Parker family was the first home in the program to be dedicated, on June 20. It rests six feet above grade, so Zamore kept the building's scale modest and further mitigated its top-heaviness by placing the driveway to one side instead of underneath. Gang, meanwhile, faced a dizzying 12-foot lift for her house. She countered with spacious landings for the front stairs and shallow risers to ease the climb. A shady deck area underneath the building provides street-level social space.
Despite their varied backgrounds, approaches, and solutions, all of the Model Home architects and their clients were thrilled to see progress—on the boards, in the works, and on the ground.