Lessons learned after Hurricane Katrina are still being spread around the country, in part because of the work being done by the Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, a professional service and outreach program of Mississippi State University’s College of Architecture, Art and Design.
The community design studio was created in Biloxi after the 2005 storm to provide architectural design services, landscape and planning assistance to the coastal communities and others involved with housing, public spaces and neighborhood development.
David Perkes was running the university program in Jackson when Katrina hit and quickly saw what was needed from the state’s only architecture school. “It was pretty clear from the beginning the work would involve replacing housing but also planning and landscape architecture work,” he said. “We started with all that work after Katrina and it has naturally evolved into more long term efforts to make our communities more livable and sustainable.”
The goal is to “make the Gulf Coast aware of what we need to do to be more prepared in general and more resilient so we are able to recover from the next storm,” he said.
The design studio was involved in the repair and new construction of more than 300 houses, with input from the homeowners and other stakeholders. “Our approach always been to do everything we can to make sure people are part of the whole decision-making process,” Perkes said. “The more people involved in decision making processes the better it will be.”
The designers didn’t want the houses to have the same look that would be easily identified as Katrina houses.
“We didn’t want temporary houses that people would move into and then leave to become rental property. We wanted to make sure a house was a good fit for the neighborhood and the family long term so people wanted to stay and then pass them on to their children.”
The owners of the houses done by the design studio had already qualified for various funding programs through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Mississippi Development Authority. “Obviously they didn’t have money for an architect to design their house,” Perkes said. The studio was paid for its professional services through HUD and MDA programs.
Construction on the last three or four houses is wrapping up and the design studio is focusing on several new projects.
One involves the restoration of Bayou Auguste on the Back Bay of Biloxi that started a couple of years ago and is funded by grants. The project has strong community interest and volunteers are helping with cleanup of the bayou. MSU has partnered with the city, its schools and the housing authority along with the Land Trust for the Mississippi Coastal Plain.
Bayou Auguste and similar waterways offer critical protection against storms and also serve as a habitat nursery for shrimp. Improving the waterways by cleaning them makes them function better for the long term, he said. “We need to keep them healthy.”
The design studio also is preparing a watershed plan for Rotten Bayou near Diamondhead that community volunteers are helping with.
Officials and consultants in Houston asked the studio to help with the replacement of housing lost during Hurricane Ike. Perkes also is involved in a program in the Northeast to help with Hurricane Sandy recovery. “HUD created a program to bring in design teams to look at their infrastructure and shoreline issues and figure out how to become more resilient. We are part of the team from the Gulf Coast doing work in Bridgeport, Conn.”
Perkes also is working with the Federal Alliance of Safe Homes, producing a user friendly guide for weather resilient housing construction, again based on lessons learned. And the design studio is wrapping up a three-year sustainability plan headed by Gulf Regional Planning Commission and funded by HUD to make the region more sustainable.
The studio typically has around 10 architects, planners, landscape architects and interns. They recently moved from shared workspace at the HOPE Community Development Agency. “It’s a great partnership and made a lot of sense when our work was with housing,” Perkes said.
The new space in the Vieux Marche area of Biloxi allows the design studio to be more involved in downtown revitalization with merchants and the city’s Main Street and Housing Authority.
Perkes said the projects the design studio works on are not the work of typical commercial design firms so they don’t see themselves in competition. They take the role of promoting design and helping create work for architects. For example, the studio helps communities and organization with pre-design work that allows them to hire an architect to do the work. “We see our work often helping an organization make the first step to be able to go beyond that,” he said.