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Architects see unprecedented challenges, opportunities

The post-Katrina opportunities for architects on the Coast and in South Mississippi are unprecedented.
Of course, so are the challenges.

Several Coast architecture firms’ offices were swept away by the storm surge. Some architects, like tens of thousands of homeowners, didn’t have flood insurance coverage. And while most Coast residents will really miss many of the buildings, particularly the unique beachfront homes along scenic U.S. 90, architects particularly regret the loss of such a large amount of the Coast’s buildings since they designed or helped renovate many of them.

Last week, six months after Katrina made landfall August 29th, the Mississippi Business Journal talked with five architects about this unprecedented natural disaster and their visions for rebuilding the region.

Frank Genzer

Design Studios of Frank Genzer Architect

Biloxi

“There are incredible opportunities to master plan and design exciting new communities. But one of the biggest challenges I see is trying to design economically feasible buildings within the context of the new inflated land values and increased construction costs while meeting pre-Katrina and new FEMA criterion for elevation requirements.

“It took Destin 35 years to develop. The Mississippi Gulf Coast has suddenly found itself with as much if not more sea frontage than Destin. The new “vacant” land is not going to all be built in the next five to 10 years, especially with the new land values. Many who owned property and lost everything are trying to recoup their losses with, I think, unrealistic land values. Land values and the cost of construction must match what the market is prepared to pay for real estate. Suddenly the combination of those two put us with costs similar to northern Florida. So it stands to reason market consumption here is going to be much slower than previous to Katrina.

“We must have realistic expectations. If you actually look at the land that developers are wanting to convert to high density property, it could take 10 to 15 years to come anywhere close for the market demand to catch up with the quantity of land available for new commercial and condominium developments.

“If land values are realistic, land values will match what the market will be willing to pay and projects can be designed less dense. Instead of all high rise condos, you can build a mixture of high-rise, mid-rise and low-rise buildings so then land absorption would occur much faster and our tax bases would return sooner.

“It is tragic so many people lost everything. Many don’t necessarily want to rebuild and others aren’t sure they can afford to rebuild. Some property owners have no choice but to sell to speculators or developers to recoup their losses. That means a lot of our single-family, beachfront areas lined with turn-of-the century homes may not be rebuilt. It will be sad if we have permanently lost the attractiveness of these beautiful homes that overlooked the Gulf and replace them with high-density residential communities. I am hopeful that architects will be given the opportunity to design diverse and mixed-use communities.

“One of the other challenges as an architect is trying to determine construction costs. Some construction estimates have increased by 30% post-Katrina. Not all of the increases can be attributed to our particular situation. The rest of the world hasn’t slowed down using building materials, and we are competing with the rest of the world for steel and other vital building materials. Along with material increases, we have seen dramatic labor increases.

“Affordable housing is a particular concern. Land costs currently being represented on the Coast will actually eliminate the opportunity for affordable housing to be rebuilt. You can’t build affordable housing when new land values are out of reach. To encourage realistic land prices, cities need to reaffirm zoning. They have to say, ‘This area was zoned single-family and we are going to keep it single-family’ or, ‘Because of Katrina, we are going to adopt new land uses.’ In all fairness, all the cities need to re-evaluate zoning so people who have lost homes and businesses and possibly want to rebuild, but are concerned about what will happen next door to them, will know what is going to happen. If they know for certain that their neighbors would rebuild, that might influence their decision to rebuild. New investments that obviously are required to rebuild the Coast much be protected.

“We need to have some houses on the beach that people recognize as part of our historic image of the Coast rebuilt, while at the same time allowing some condominium communities to be created. We need diversity in the building efforts. There is a happy medium between single-family, condominiums, casino resorts and mixed-use developments.

“Biloxi Major A.J. Holloway recently announced the creation of a new commission to evaluate the future growth of the city. This is a positive step.

“Some areas I would love to see designated as historic restoration districts. Perhaps tax incentives and grants would allow people to rebuild back in historic neighborhoods, not necessarily just on the beach, but at Point Cadet and other areas.

“Katrina affected some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest people on the Coast. If you could afford to own a piece of property on the water, everyone struggled to do that. The challenge we face is not only rebuilding the beautiful homes along the coastline, but to rebuild affordable housing so people don’t have to migrate to the north side of the bay.”

Larry A. Albert

Albert & Associates Architects, P.A.

Hattiesburg

“My firm was impacted because our power and water went off. It was two full weeks before the firm got up and running. A window was blown out. A corner of our building was blown off and crashed into the street. Even before that was fixed, we got a call from Ken P’Poole (head of historic preservation for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History) to look at Beauvoir in Biloxi, the last home of Jefferson Davis. We still didn’t have a phone or computers, but we put a team together of structural engineers and contractors, drove to the Coast, and went to Beauvoir. It was a shocking sight to see.
“We slowly started restoring the house at Beauvoir in 1990. We did small renovations all this time, one continually after another. It was down to the point that we just had a little more painting work and we would start renovation of the mechanical system.

“Katrina didn’t take Beauvoir, but heavily damaged it. I shed tears when I saw the house. But there is not a problem in rebuilding what we had there. The amazing thing is when I got myself up to the top of the second floor, even though it was a hot day in September and no one had air conditioning, the second floor was one of the coolest places on the Coast. One thing I realized is some of the wisdom of our forefathers in their design of buildings for the climate.

“I was the architect for the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library and Museum, which was completed in 1997. It was built to withstand a hurricane similar to Camille, and was a foot higher than Hurricane Camille’s water surge. The second floor didn’t get a drop of water and the vault on the second floor was safe. But storm surge was nearly eight feet higher than Camille, and it broke out the hurricane windows on the first floor.

“We lost so many other historic buildings all up and down the Coast. It is sad to know that all those wonderful structures I had admired are completely gone. There is nothing there. I feel a great loss of our heritage knowing most of it will be built back new and glitzy. If we don’t understand where we came from, what our forefathers built and why, then there will be no indigenous feeling in our architecture. We could lose track of what to build today and what we are.

“The next thing that went through my mind is how important it is to save every historic structure that is in jeopardy. The historic buildings that are left are even more precious now in our state, especially at the southern end of the state.

“I went to the Mississippi Renewal Forum, and particularly liked a comment from one speaker who said, ‘I don’t care if you have only one porch column left on your house. Please rebuild your house. If you have photos, buy other porch columns to match them.’

“This firm is full steam ahead drawing what was there, working to build back Beauvoir, but I feel that way about many structures. Every structure that gets rebuilt needs a champion. I know that with all the destruction, that will take time. I know everyone needs encouragement. And people need help with insurance.

“If we don’t re-establish some of our coastal character we have known all our lives, it is going to be a sad day. We will just be Anywhere USA. We had a very charming and eclectic Coast down there, and that is what we must recreate.”

Philip Shaw

Shaw Design Group, PA

Gulfport

“Out of eight of us in this office, three had significant damage to their homes, and all of us had some damage.
“We had four feet of water in our office, and ended up bulldozing it. We will be celebrating our 100th anniversary this year, and four or five years ago built an office just south of Pass Road to hold our records. We thought we needed a place that was high and dry to store records, and there is a ridge on Pass Road, so we were fine. We moved into that building on Wednesday after the storm.

“Of course, everything is done with computers now. Every night we backed up everything on our file server, and then one of our architects would take it to her house. Then weekly we did a little different back up that backed up everything on our server, even all the software. Then a different architect took that weekly tape to her house.

“We lost everything we had on our server. The architect who took the daily backup got seven foot of water at her house. We were concerned about the other backup because sometimes these tapes get corrupted by using them over and over. We knew if the tape was corrupted, we were in trouble because we didn’t have another backup. Fortunately, the tape was good.

“We had to replace all the computers and file server, and ordered all of that. Of course, we didn’t have any flood insurance, so all of that was on Phil’s nickel. The problem was we couldn’t get anything shipped into Gulfport in the weeks following the storm. We had someone who worked with a hospital in Mobile, so we had it shipped to the hospital for pick up.

“Every single project we had before the storm went away. We were doing a lot of restoration and rebuilding, and one of those buildings is no longer there. It is just a pile of bricks. We were doing a couple projects for the county school system that were put on hold because they don’t know what their finances will be. We were doing a couple projects for Harrison County, and those were put on hold for the same reason. They don’t know if they are going to have any money or not.

“We do a lot of work for the Harrison County School District, and started on Thursday after the storm first of all accessing the schools to see how badly damaged they were, and then worked in conjunction with a contractor getting the schools up and running again. For a month and a half, that is all most of the people in our office did, in addition to getting our office up and running.

“It was a challenge. A lot of work had to be done in a very compressed time schedule. As bad as it was for us, it was harder on contractors. They really did a terrific job getting these schools repaired. They worked long, hard hours to get that done. I can’t say enough nice things about them because they did a great job.

“I don’t know what is happening now with new business. We are still trying to get people rebuilt, the equivalent of getting blue roofs on. There hasn’t been someone calling saying, ‘We need you to do a new office building or restaurant.’ I think people either haven’t gotten insurance payments yet, don’t know how much they are going to have, or they haven’t decided what to do. There are a lot of people who haven’t settled with insurance companies. I think it is wait-and-see from our perspective.

“We have been up and running since two days after the storm, and I think most of the other architects on the Coast have been running if not that quickly, soon after that. I can think of three architects who lost their offices totally. But that hasn’t kept them from being able to work. We’re all there. You don’t have to go to New York City to get the work done. We haven’t all of the sudden given up.”

Bruce Tolar

Tolar LeBatard Denmark Architects, PLLC

Ocean Springs

“Our Biloxi office was right behind the Town Green downtown, and it did flood. But we have had excellent luck with our businesses. I had combined offices a year ago with George Denmark and Mike LeBatard, and we were in the process of getting things more centralized to our office in Ocean Springs. The majority of our valuable files had been moved to Ocean Springs.

“Fortunately, we did not lose a majority of our work. Our office here in Ocean Springs did not sustain any critical damage. We were back in business a week and a half after the storm. We were able to put our people back to work, and they were glad to have something to do.

“Most of our work in the past few years had been away from the Mississippi Gulf Coast in Florida, Alabama and the Jackson area. So, we were able to continue to work on projects in those areas while people were recovering here. It was not until after the first of the year that we started receiving new work for the Gulf Coast recovery — after people got over the shock of the hurricane, and worked through insurance claims. Dealing with reconstruction hasn’t been a priority for everyone. I had three feet of water in my house, so we have all been recovering.

“Mike has done a lot of hurricane studies and reports for different clients based on the damages and to make assessments since the storm. That was work we did locally. Then we became heavily involved in the Governor’s Commission and charrette process, a lot of well spent volunteer time that was needed to help establish a direction for recovery. I think the results of that process are going to be a good turnaround point for the Coast.

“Local architects being involved with the top national architects has been a shot of adrenaline. It gives us ideas, and now new ideas spun with local and national cooperation are being accepted locally. We’re very involved in the continued design and promotion of the Katrina Cottages, which are alternatives to FEMA trailers.

“We are working to establish a center for viewing several models of the Katrina Cottages. One cottage can be viewed in downtown Ocean Springs, but there are 12 other versions being developed by a group of architects. We are approaching manufacturers and looking for land so people can see more than one cottage. Now is a good time to get this going before we begin another hurricane season.

“This cottage concept is really unique, and a far better option than FEMA trailers or tents. If we can learn from this event and have Katrina Cottages ready for future events, immediately we will be able to place people in structures that are safer than trailers. Mike Reader (WLOX television weatherman) tells people in FEMA trailers to go to a shelter if there is a thunderstorm. If they had Katrina Cottages, built to code, they could sustain possibly a Category 2 storm without evacuation. If we have people still in FEMA trailers during another hurricane, they are going to have to evacuate for a Category 1 storm. FEMA trailers are giving needed shelters, but also putting people back in harm’s way.

“Katrina Cottages are not just for here. We are getting contacts from all over the world about these cottages. We’re not taking people who have lost everything and putting them in trailers, but giving them alternative ways to rebuild their lives. We want people to understand their alternatives in the future. If nothing else comes out of this catastrophe, we have shown an alternate method for shelter and a better way to recover. I know the people in the trailer industry don’t like to hear us talk about it. But I have been in a trailer six months, and I wouldn’t be in there another week if I didn’t have to.

“Now with the shortage of contractors, we almost have to go this way to replace the number of houses we have lost. It costs $50,000 to put someone in a FEMA trailer for 18 months, and then you throw the trailer away at the end. Under the current law, FEMA can’t fund permanent housing. We are trying to get that changed. For the same or less cost than a FEMA trailer you can have a permanent house that would sleep a family, provide good shelter, and would never have to be moved.

“We have a lot of displaced homeowners wanting to go back into homes, but are not willing to, or cannot pay today’s prices to replace their home. What can they downsize to and afford to build under today’s construction costs?

“We’re really promoting the quality of the Katrina Cottage. We are not trying to make the cheapest product out there. The little cottage has received comments that it costs too much for being so small. I paid $30,000 for a 10 by 30 foot trailer. I’d rather have a 10 by 30 foot house that is real property that has value.

“Where do I see architecture on the Coast going? I feel the immense loss not only of lives, but the property and places we have all loved, the historic homes and homes with character that had a history related to them. Now they no longer exist. There is no way to recreate the beautiful drive — lined with stately trees, homes and buildings from Biloxi to Pass Christian. But we have an opportunity as architects to hopefully do our best and come back and raise the level of quality architecture and construction on the Coast.

“I don’t 100% agree with FEMA guidelines, but we will have to live with what the cities adopt. We must find a better way of building the cities back. We can never design for another Katrina 100%, but we can design so when hurricanes come through, we won’t have the extreme damage we saw with this one.

“Florida and Alabama have adopted stronger building codes, and maybe through this process we can build a better lifestyle for the people who are here. After getting over grieving for loss and the initial recovery, I look at this as a wonderful opportunity for the Coast to come back as a great place to live. People elsewhere in the country and the world can come here to play, visit casinos, golf and enjoy the natural environment. We all know this is a great place. That is why we live here.

“I have been involved in the growth of the Coast for 20 years, and now that has all changed. Now most of the fabric is gone, and if we don’t understand what was so special about the Coast, we could lose that, too. There is an opportunity to make the transition keeping many of the characteristics of what we had in the past. But the future could be even more exciting. We could build a Coast that 100 years from now people will look back and say, ‘What a great job they did back then.’”

Dennis Cowart

Cowart Architects

Ocean Springs

“There is a lot of work. Everyone seems to be very busy. The challenges are people are waiting. A lot have unsettled issues either with insurance or something to do with their property or building. They are waiting to resolve those to come to architects, and then they want things quickly. Everyone is busy, so there are some timing issues when people are coming and wanting plans done quicker than normal when everyone is already up to their gills in work.

“We adhere to International Building Code as a standard, and that resolves most of the structural issues regarding rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. The height elevations are almost case by case. In most cases, people want to go with recommended new elevations. But there are cases where it causes a significant hardship. Some people are building back before the government changes the rules. Most I have seen doing that aren’t on the Coast. They are inland and weren’t in a flood zone to begin with.

“I think the new flood elevations are a real concern in Harrison County in particular. It is an issue in Pascagoula, too, as very few existing structures are going to comply.

“Regarding types of construction being favored after the storm, a lot of people are interested in ICFs (Insulated Concrete Form) construction, cast in place concrete construction, and steel construction. But I think the structural issues people are trying to address — the storm surge forces — are beyond any reasonable building system. There are lots of options for wind sources. But trying to survive storm surge with wave action, it is foolhardy.

“I think the big concern among everybody is finding enough contractors to do the work that has to be done. There are a lot of affordable housing agendas out there, and I think that will be addressed. It is just going to take some time.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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