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Architects giving back to Coast communities in need

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Mississippi Gulf Coast on its mercilessly slow trek from the Gulf of Mexico to the northeast corner of the state August 29, 2005, Gov. Haley Barbour asked Jim Barksdale to chair the newly formed Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal.

Funded entirely by private donations, the commission had a penetrating mission: to help connect local people’s hopes and vision for their future with the best ideas from the public and private sectors. Barksdale’s initial task was daunting. For the most part, coastal communities had been reduced to matchsticks and rubble. He had agreed to produce a final report by the end of 2005 — just four months after the nation’s worst and costliest natural disaster — summarizing the best ideas for rebuilding those communities and presenting a broad vision for renewal.

Architects from Mississippi and around the country donated their time or greatly reduced their rates and absorbed traveling expenses to facilitate the recovery process. One of the commission’s best ideas, said Barksdale, was to incorporate the charrette process, a unique time-limited design event gaining popularity nationwide. In 2003, area residents and construction industry professionals participated in a charrette to create a master plan for the successful Town of Lost Rabbit community in Madison County.

Organized by the Chicago-based Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and led by Miami architect-planner Andres Duany, the Mississippi Gulf Coast charrettes were held in October in a weeklong series of workshops dubbed the Mississippi Renewal Forum. Teams of highly qualified local and out-of-state design professionals worked with community leaders to design and plan for rebuilding the hurricane-affected areas at a fraction of their normal cost.

The post-Katrina planning effort for Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Gulfport, Biloxi, D’Iberville, Ocean Springs, Gautier, Moss Point and Pascagoula was unprecedented in its scope and intensity. The teams crafted building blocks for neighborhood-based plans, simplified codes and approval procedures for buildings and the design of low-cost buildings of character that could be built quickly but retained for permanent use. There were designs for redeveloping land once occupied by vacant or blighted commercial strips into walkable districts that echoed the beloved older parts of the affected communities. Other design concepts gracefully integrated casinos into the fabric of the hometowns.

A Knight Foundation grant covered many expenses of the charrettes, and CNU professionals donated their time at greatly reduced rates or pro bono.

“I was delighted with the charrettes, mainly because the people here were delighted,” said Barksdale. “It was 24 hours of non-stop idea generation, like architects on steroids. That place was humming. This plan is going to be a marvelous rebirth with places of historical significance intermingled with bold, new ideas people dreamed about down here.”

Johnson Bailey Henderson McNeel (JBHM) partner Richard McNeel, AIA, who serves on the state board of architecture and participated in the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Town of Lost Rabbit charrettes, said the number of architects who wanted to help overwhelmed him. “We’ve had to be careful, though,” said McNeel, “because a question of concern from the state board’s standpoint was: were the people coming from out of state really just here marketing their companies? Fortunately, most everyone was sincere.”

Charles R. Alexander, AIA, a senior project manager and partner at Jackson-based Dale and Associates, said one of the firm’s first priorities was to provide the staff with gratis time to travel to south Mississippi and handle architectural assessments during office hours.

“The governor allowed architects to be relieved of liability working on observations of storm-damaged buildings, and that helped a lot,” said Alexander. “There have been a series of architectural assessments done, especially through the American Institute of Architects.

Eight to 10 of our employees have gone down to the coast and have been doing observations and assessments of the storm-damaged area and providing those to the owners of those buildings in determining whether or not those structures can be repaired or not.

Another area where we’ve helped: assisting a number of firms in giving them a place to work, and providing them some additional work on some projects to help them restore their firm.”

Like other architectural firms in Mississippi, JBHM, which has an office in Biloxi, has given back to the community in other ways. Last Christmas, JBHM gave 1,000 stockings filled with age-appropriate gifts to coastal schoolchildren and sent book bags to schoolteachers, all donated in the names of the firm’s clients. JBHM also purchased 200 copies of the “Storm” book written by schoolchildren on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and plans to donate one to every coastal school library.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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