At the peak of the effort to house those displaced by Hurricane Katrina, some 40,000 families had found refuge in trailers and mobile homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Despite the health problems associated with the trailers’ construction, that remains a considerable achievement. For disaster victims needing three to six months to repair their homes, Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) director Mike Womack says, “that model works pretty well.” Unfortunately, he adds, “it would take years to rebuild housing on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.” Working with a $281 million federal grant, the state of Mississippi produced what may be a better model: transitional housing sturdy and livable enough to become permanent.
Starting in April 2007, MEMA’s Mississippi Alternative Housing Program (www.mscottage.org) offered residents the option of swapping their FEMA units for one of three models of modular, stick-built dwellings that they later would have the opportunity to buy. Inspired in part by architect Marianne Cusato’s Katrina Cottage and designed with input from the School of Architecture at Mississippi State University and the architecture and planning firm Looney Ricks Kiss (LRK), the dwellings range from the 400-square-foot “Park Model” to an 832-square-foot, three-bedroom “Mississippi Cottage.” “It’s basically a modular home on a mobile home foundation,” Womack explains, with insulated 2x6 walls, fiber cement clapboard siding, and gypsum board interior finishes. With procurement costs running from $34,269 to $51,130 per unit, Womack notes, “rather than spending $30,000 to $50,000 on a temporary unit ... it makes more sense to give these families a permanent home.”
LRK drew on its expertise in modular construction to produce designs “that could be put into production quickly with the manufacturers that were waiting on the sidelines,” says firm principal Michael Sullivan, AIA. With their peaked roofs, front porches, and “shotgun” floor plans, the buildings reflect a traditional Gulf Coast residential style “to bring back the idea of home in an emergency housing form,” Sullivan adds.
Produced on a small-lot bid basis by seven separate manufacturers, the buildings roll to their sites on a mobile home–like steel chassis and rest on a temporary stacked concrete block foundation. After 18 months, they are offered to their occupants for purchase at an income-adjusted price as low as $450 or “decommissioned” and hauled away. “We’ve transferred ownership of 894,” Womack reports, most of which were then set on permanent foundations. “We’ve donated 500 units to various nonprofits,” including Habitat for Humanity. Another 350 have been sold as surplus. “We would love to hold onto some units, but there is a cost to maintain them,” says Womack, who lacks the funding to mothball units until the next disaster. But having successfully produced and deployed 3,000 dwellings, he is confident that his agency can resume production “within 90 days.” And without the oversight required in the first go-round, he estimates that “the cost would go down by a quarter or a third."