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"Katrina Cottage" Designer Talks Small in Burlington 

Local Matters

Published February 13, 2008 at 11:08 a.m.

BURLINGTON — Efficiency Vermont considered many possible headline speakers, including Al Gore, for its Better Buildings by Design Conference this week in Burlington. But ultimately, the energy-conservation organization chose a woman who unabashedly admits that size matters: architect Marianne Cusato, designer of the so-called ”Katrina Cottage.” [CUSATO'S TALK WILL BE DELAYED BY ONE HOUR DUE TO WEATHER. SEE CONFERENCE WEBSITE FOR UPDATES].

After the devastating hurricane of the same name in 2005, Cusato and other designers were commissioned by the governor of Louisiana to form the Mississippi Renewal Forum and come up with better ways to shelter those rendered homeless. The group’s recommendations included the suggestion that using the now-infamous Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers as temporary housing was neither thrifty nor effective.

Cusato believed that a far better investment of taxpayers’ money would have been to build small, permanent, energy-efficient homes that would outlast their FEMA trailer counterparts. Her resulting design is small by conventional home standards. Its 308-square-foot, one-bedroom layout was proposed chiefly because it fell evenly between the 200- and 400-square-foot size range of the trailers. The cottage’s size was its only departure from traditional construction practices, however. With firm foundations, sturdy frames and well-appointed interiors, the homes were designed specifically to offer residents dignity — something distinctly lacking in forced trailer living.

By the time the Forum made its recommendations, FEMA was well on its way to outlaying $2.7 billion for 145,000 trailers. But the small-home idea stuck, and Cusato soon found inquiries coming to her Greenwich Village studio (which is 11 by 24 feet) from all over the country.

“It was amazing,” Cusato said in a phone interview. “People made the logical leap so quickly . . . that these cottages were not just a great alternative to a trailer, they were actually a great place to live.”

A graduate of architecture from Notre Dame, Cusato soon made a logical jump of her own. “It occurred to me that all this interest was a direct contradiction to the hugely oversold idea that we need to live in massive homes,” she said. “These ‘lawyer foyers’ and Olympic-sized great rooms are not just not needed — and a heating and cooling nightmare — they might also be unwanted.

The Katrina Cottage’s design strength,” Cusato noted, “is that it addresses the needs of residents in Vermont as neatly as it does those of Southerners.”

She decided to sell her plans to the public, and expanded the range of cottage designs to include more than a dozen options — one is as large as 1800 square feet. Cusato partnered with Lowe’s Home Centers, Inc. to combine the sale of both plans and building materials (www.cusatocottages.com). At $55 per square foot for materials, that means that a 600-square-foot cottage would cost approximately $50,000 to build.

It’s hard to argue against the notion that heating smaller spaces is good economics, and Patrick Haller of Efficiency Vermont isn’t about to try. Marianne’s ideas “are reflective of what so many of us need now: a practical alternative to traditional construction,” he says. “Hers isn’t just a clever design, it’s an adaptive design, and is able to include a great variety of energy-efficient materials.”

Others are catching on. The Smithsonian Institute’s National Design Museum honored Cusato’s Katrina Cottage with the “People’s Design Award” in 2006. In June of that year, Congress appropriated $74.5 million to Cusato, fellow designer Andrés Duany and Lowe’s for an alternative-housing pilot program to replace hundreds of FEMA trailers in Louisiana.

To the expected 1000-plus residents, architects, builders and environmentalists who will attend the Better Buildings by Design Conference — at the Sheraton Burlington Hotel and Conference Center February 13 and 14 — the combination of thrift, efficiency and quality construction is a sought-after design trifecta.

“Katrina Cottages are just one application of a much bigger idea,” Cusato concluded. “We need to rethink our use of space, use of energy, use of materials. I think we can do all of that, and also live in beautiful, affordable homes. That’s the message I want to bring to the conference.”

For more information, visit www.efficiencyvermont.com.

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