Before Hurricane Katrina raged through New Orleans in 2005, devastating many of its neighborhoods, local firm Billes Architecture hadn't done any residential work beyond designing the house of its principal and co-owner, Gerald Billes, AIA, NCARB. But with entire neighborhoods of homes practically erased, the firm saw not only a need that it could help fill, but an opportunity as well.

Rebuilding efforts in New Orleans are progressing, but many neighborhoods in the area most affected by the storm surge and flooding are still desolate. Actor and activist Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation has continued to focus attention on the hard-hit Lower 9th Ward, but many other areas of the city are similarly damaged.

Along with 12 other architecture firms, Billes Architecture designed a house for the Make It Right project in 2007. Three families so far have selected Billes' design for their new homes, and they are among the first eight Make It Right homes to be completed (click here). Billes also has submitted a new design to the Make It Right project in response to an April 2009 call for duplex designs.

But co-owners/principals Billes and Richard S. Kravet, AIA, NCARB, wanted to draw attention to neighborhoods outside the Lower 9th Ward and to encourage the rebuilding of those communities in a sensible, sustainable, and modern way. So in January 2009, the firm held a Home Design Competition for architecture students.

seeking student designs

"One of the reasons we held this contest was to try to spawn more interest in those areas that have been having difficult times coming back," Billes says. "The Lower 9th Ward was specifically excluded from our contest because it's received so much attention from other organizations. We concentrated on all other areas that were hardest hit by the Katrina floods."

Billes invited graduate and undergraduate students from some of the leading design schools in North America to enter the competition. Sixteen U.S. and five Canadian institutions were given an opportunity to participate (view the complete list of universities here).

For the competition, students were asked to design a 1,500-square-foot to 2,000-square-foot house with three bedrooms and two and a half baths. The homes had to be designed to withstand the region's challenging climate and strong winds and be suitable for one of four city neighborhoods: Uptown, Downtown, Gentilly/Lakeview, and New Orleans East. They also had to carry an anticipated cost of $150,000 to $225,000. The 27 entries drew on provided information about each area's history, culture, and demographics, as well as lot parameters.

The competition further required students to conceive designs that would be eligible for LEED for Homes Gold or Platinum certification and to provide a full explanation of the LEED elements they incorporated. Entrants also had to provide functional diagrams or descriptions of the energy conservation and alternative energy concepts they employed. The competition encouraged students to create modern, contemporary designs based on an understanding of the successful features of the time-tested New Orleans vernacular.

Keep reading on the next page, and view a slideshow of the competition winners.