Friday, February 23, 2007

Oh Lift Me A Home...

Grad students from MIT and Oxfam America have collaborated to created what they refer to as the Lift House.

Designed to Last The design for the house reflects both the local style and the need for the structure to withstand the assault of howling winds and hurricane flooding.

"They look like they belong down here," said Peg Case, TRAC's executive director. "We took great care in making sure MIT understood that outside is important." People in the south do much of their living outdoors on their decks.

"I assume this house will be here and that won't," added local architect E.A. Angelloz, standing on the site of the new house and pointing at its neighbor, a low-to-the-ground bungalow of indeterminate age. "Another thing people don't take into account is shifting debris. By being up, you avoid the debris. The stuff will move underneath it as opposed to through it."

And the piling foundation, designed by local engineer Joseph Kowle, will ensure that the house stays put when all that water and debris does slop by.

Materials specified for the Lift House include a cladding of Hardie Board—a (sp) fiber board impregnated with cement that is water proof and won't dent when projectiles come hurtling at it. A broad deck that wraps around the house and a roof with a generous overhang provide plenty of outdoor living space and a comfortable amount of shade.

"We're very sensitive to making sure we don't waste energy," said Goethert, who directs MIT's Special Interest Group in Urban Settlement, or SIGUS. The house will be well-insulated, well-ventilated, and made from durable materials constructed in a way that will help them last, he said. That overhanging roof, for instance, not only protects people from the sun, but it will protect the exterior walls from heavy downpours.

Some of the ideas incorporated in the design are indigenous to the area, said student Zachary Lamb, such as the large volume of attic space. The cushion of air inside serves as a natural insulator helping to keep the house below it cool.

Elevating houses was once more commonly practiced in the region than it is now, Lamb added, noting that many of the area's older houses were built off the ground. When slab foundations became the new hot thing half a century ago, Louisianans started to build them, too, setting aside their more sensible traditions—and paying the price.

Lifting it Later MIT's original idea was to build the Lift House on the ground where teams of volunteers could work on it easily, and then hoist the completed structure onto its pilings. Affordability is one of the key objectives of the design, and, to achieve that, construction will depend heavily on volunteer labor. Goethert also points out that building the house on the ground and lifting it later is safer for everyone who might work on it.

But with this first prototype, TRAC plans to hire professional builders who traditionally work from the pilings up. Volunteers will be recruited later to help finish the interiors.
Fortunately, this is not Modernists fantasy trip.

Last January, when Fugate visited Dulac, Louisiana, a poor bayou community in Terrebonne Parish, he was struck by how precarious the setting was for homes—low, muddy, and not far from the wind-whipped waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s a beautiful but not a gentle landscape,” said Fugate.

The students’ objective was to design a bayou home that would neither flood nor get blown away. They had to take into account the corrosive salt water, soggy ground, and winds tearing across the flatlands at hurricane speed—all the while remembering the admonition that “weirdness” could sink even the best of ideas.

Coupled with that warning was the students’ recognition that regardless of how hard they studied the place, they would never know it as well as the locals. When Fugate suggested that carpeting would make a good floor cover for a house lifted high above flood waters, he found himself corrected: In the muddy bayou, shoes caked with muck are a fact of life. Better to install easy-to-clean tiling than carpets.

“It’s a two-way learning street,”said Fugate.

The motto that the customer is always right will serve these vendors well and help ensure that flood-resistant housing takes root. Trying to create advanced housing concepts in a vacuum and then telling people they must adopt their ideas to survive is a quick path to failure.

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