I’ve visited the Mississippi Gulf Coast at odd intervals since Hurricane Katrina struck almost eight years ago, and have been keeping tabs on an emerging architectural typology. Ordinary suburban-style neocolonials and ranch houses are being jacked up on sturdy wooden or concrete piers ten or 20 feet in the air, the heights dictated by the Base Flood Elevation set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and enforced by insurance companies. These houses fascinate me because most of them make few concessions to the fact that they’re not built at grade. They look as if someone has played a cruel joke on the owners, as if the family had gone out to dinner and come back to find their house out of reach…
I know a little about the prehistory of these houses. About six weeks after Katrina, the then-governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, invited New Urbanist architect supreme Andrés Duany to bring pretty much everyone he knew to Biloxi to envision a rebirth of the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast. The Mississippi Renewal Forum, as it was called, filled a giant ballroom of the Isle of Capri casino with some 200 industrious, inspired architects, planners, and engineers, all champions of pedestrian-oriented development.
But after several feverish days of dream-ing up antebellum casinos and neoclassical Walmarts, reality intruded. In the wee hours of day four, the conference leadership received the newest flood maps for the Gulf Coast from FEMA, and they showed Base Flood Elevations that were five to ten feet higher than those the designers had been working with. In the Velocity Zones, areas most likely to be impacted by a storm surge, the lowest habitable floor of a home suddenly had to be 21 feet in the air.
“I think the problem is totally recalibrating the aesthetic,” Duany said, leading an emergency meeting. “It’s not taking antebellum houses and cranking them up. The aesthetic has more to do with lighthouses.” While others in the room pointed out the political and economic ramifications of the flood map—some towns might not be able to rebuild at all, poor people would be driven off the coast for good—Duany was nonchalant. “It will be like Tahiti,” he said. “Totally cool.”
It is worth reading the rest as it discusses how such stilted homes make it really difficult to have the close community life desired by New Urbanists. On one hand, I imagine some sort of community will develop if all the homes share the same fate. At the least, they all become known as the people who live in the odd houses. On the other hand, being so high in the air may reinforce the notion that Americans care more about their private spaces – within their homes – than street life and the community.
One odd bonus of a home so far in the air: imagine the size of the vehicle that could fit below.