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Designed to last, new "Lift House" holds promise for Louisiana

By Coco McCabe
Betty Jane Adams stands on the foundation of her former home in Chauvin, LA, that was destroyed by Hurricane Rita. Adams home was rebuilt by TRAC in 2007.

It's not a house yet, but the pink tape, anchored at four tidy corners to mark the foundation, holds the promise that Miss Betty Adams won't have to worry about storm surges from any more hurricanes. Her next house in Chauvin, La., will stand high above them.

Miss Betty will be the first recipient of the Lift House, a hurricane-resistant home designed in collaboration with architecture students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Terrebonne Readiness and Assistance Coalition (TRAC), and Oxfam America. Lift House prototypes could soon dot each of the bayous of Terrebonne Parish—and maybe sprout beyond them, too.

A groundbreaking, held in mid-January, capped months of design work, student and staff visits to the parish, and the hard-earned permitting required to get any new idea off the ground. On that cold gray day, on the concrete foundation where her house once stood at the base of a levee, Miss Betty found herself laughing as Reinhard Goethert, the MIT professor leading the project, handed her a present.

"We thought we'd give you a kite "to take advantage of the altitude," he said.

They were flying high at last.

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 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.

The immediate goal for the partners in this enterprise is to get all the construction kinks worked out with this first house so that future ones can be built efficiently—with volunteer hands. MIT students will evaluate the cost differentials between building on the ground and building above it. Is it cheaper to carry many loads of materials up to the top of the pilings in numerous trips as you're building, or to pay a flat fee to have the structure hoisted when it's done?

Students will also complete a report that MIT plans to share with other aid groups interested in doing similar construction work in coastal areas. The report details the lessons MIT has learned in the course of this initiative.

And what's the most important one?

"Make sure you get a (local) architect and an engineer up front," said Goethert, adding they know what the local building requirements and issues are. "It helps you make decisions."

Decisions, decisions

At a camp for volunteers in Houma, La., MIT students were still wrestling with some of those decisions on groundbreaking day—and getting feedback from Gordon Case, TRAC's construction manager who has intimate knowledge of what works and won't work among the independent breed of people who live along the bayous.

What would be the best way to offer more shade on the Lift House decks?

Plants were the solution one cluster of students was exploring. They were hard at work on a design for a trellis that would support a bower of confederate jasmine climbing from the ground to the deck.

"It's an evergreen,"" explained Marika Kobel. "It flowers in the summer and turns red in the fall. It's a way to give shading without creating a structure that will rip apart in high winds."

Case listened carefully, and offered a thought.

"You have to think, too, how many people are going to want vines growing up their house," he said, hinting at a cultural difference the students might not have been aware of.

Closed tight with a central bolt, a heavy set of shutters in another part of the camp had drawn a small crowd of students. They were evaluating their handiwork, which was good enough to win Gordon's praise.

"I like the design," he said. "The way it looks. The durability. They're going to last because of the material: cedar."

Undoubtedly, durability will be one of the features Miss Betty may prize most in a house perched at the edge of a bayou whose waters stretch off to the horizon. The storm surge from hurricane Rita totally swamped her previous house.

"We want to make sure we're building a house to last," said Peg Case.