Monday, March 05, 2007

Bob The Builder Takes A Ride On The Banana Boat

Andrés Duany pens an article proposing an idea that certain areas of New Orleans be exempt for current building codes in order to maintain the Caribbean lifestyle present in pre-Katrina New Orleans.

It was possible to sustain the unique culture of New Orleans because housing costs were minimal, liberating people from debt. One did not have to work a great deal to get by. There was the possibility of leisure. There was time to create the fabulously complex Creole dishes that simmer forever; there was time to practice music, to play it live rather than from recordings, and to listen to it. There was time to make costumes and to parade; there was time to party and to tell stories; there was time to spend all day marking the passing of friends. One way to leisure time is to have a low financial carry. With a little work, a little help from the government, and a little help from family and friends, life could be good! This is a typically Caribbean social contract: not one to be understood as laziness or poverty—but as a way of life.

This ease, which has been so misunderstood in the national scrutiny following the hurricane, is the Caribbean way. It is a lifestyle choice, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. In fact, it is the envy of some of us who work all our lives to attain the condition of leisure only after retirement. It is this way of living that will disappear. Even with the federal funds for housing, there is little chance that new or renovated houses will be owned without debt. It is too expensive to build now. The higher standards of the new International Building Code are superb but also very expensive. There must be an alternative or there will be very few “paid-off” houses. Everyone will have a mortgage that will need to be sustained by hard work—and this will undermine the culture of New Orleans.

What can be done? Somehow the building culture that created the original New Orleans must be reinstated. The hurdle of drawings, permitting, contractors, inspections—the professionalism of it all—eliminates self-building. Somehow there must be a process whereupon people can build simple, functional houses for themselves, either by themselves or by barter with professionals. There must be free house designs that can be built in small stages and that do not require an architect, complicated permits, or inspections; there must be common-sense technical standards. Without this there will be the pall of debt for everyone. And debt in the Caribbean doesn’t mean just owing money—it is the elimination of the culture that arises from leisure.

To start I would recommend an experimental “opt-out zone”: areas where one “contracts out” of the current American system, which consists of the nanny state raising standards to the point where it is so costly and complicated to build that only the state can provide affordable housing—solving a problem that it created in the first place.

However it may sound, this proposal is not so odd. Until recently this was the way that built America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. For three centuries Americans built for themselves. They built well enough, so long as it was theirs. Individual responsibility could be trusted. We must return to this as an option. Of course, this is not for everybody. There are plenty of people in New Orleans who follow the conventional American eight-hour workday. But the culture of this city does not flow from them; they may provide the backbone of New Orleans but not its heart.

It's true that many homes were built in ways not meeting current building codes building them the same does not equate to building inexpensively. Unfortunately, people will still need a mortgage. Asking people to live in housing that is both structurally unsound and energy inefficient does a disservice to both the homeowner and the other residents of the city.


progressive reactionary said...

Agreed. For my thoughts on the matter, go here.

john03 said...

he says nothing about stucturally unsound or energy inefficient, in fact the premise of this idea working is that people take the time to do things right when it is for themselves. The houses built by people in new orleans and across the country 100+ years ago have proven quite sound and in many ways more energy efficient than modern houses. The idea may not be as simple as he makes it sound, but it does have some merit. A large part of what made new orleans special was people owning their own houses even if they were very poor. Even those of us that worked 40 hour weeks (and as an architect) are drawn to the city because of the leisure and the ability to enjoy life because the city was affordable. To see the city rebuild , but lose easy going, slow pace that set it apart from any other american city would be a horrible loss. Many things need to be done better than they were before, but some undelrying parts of the culture need to be allowed to return.

Kinch said...

What you are neglecting to mention is that the building techniques used way back when are no longer in use today. If a contractor wanted to emulate the older construction styles of a hundred and fifty years ago, it would probably be more expensive due to unfamiliarity on the part of the carpenters.

For example, if I told a carpenter to frame a shotgun house using conventional stick-built construction and in compliance with current building codes, it could be done quicker and cheaper than if I asked the same carpenter to build the same shotgun cottage using barge-board construction. That's because contractors like what they are familiar with. If they're not familiar with it, they charge more.