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The Lift House: Living on the bayou—or above it

By Coco McCabe
Graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology designed this house, dubbed the Lift House.

When architecture students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge traveled to Louisiana's southern bayous last winter with the idea of helping folks find a way to build hurricane-resistant homes, they got one message loud and clear.

"We were given the commandment early on not to design anything that looks weird," said Jeffrey Fugate. "We have tried very hard to create something that is culturally appropriate."

In collaboration with Oxfam America, MIT graduate students in Reinhard Goethert's class have come up with a plan that does a whole lot more than meet that rural aesthetic. Goethert and his students worked closely with Oxfam partner organization TRAC, the Terrebonne Readiness and Assistance Coalition, to learn how their ideas could be matched with needs in the local community.

What sets the Lift House apart from other housing programs is that it attempts to combine a concern for affordability with hurricane-ready sturdiness, and ease of construction—easy enough to turn a crew of hammer-swinging volunteers loose on the project.

Volunteers serve another purpose besides making the Lift House affordable. Their energy and enthusiasm also help strengthen a community's foundation.

"You can make this a festival of rebuilding the community," said Reinhard Goethert, director of MIT's SIGUS, or the Special Interest Group in Urban Settlement. "It's not just a physical house. You're stabilizing and rebuilding the community. People want to help. I think this is a good way to do it."

With an above normal hurricane season forecast for this year, and weather patterns that could produce storms of increased frequency and intensity for years to come, the Lift House approach may offer a sustainable housing approach to communities throughout the Gulf Coast.

Design challenges

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.

Among the design features the SIGUS group did settle on was a hipped roof—"it's sloped on all four sides, like a pyramid, it's more aerodynamic and less prone to lift," said Fugate, "and it has a 'floating foundation,' meaning a concrete slab that can move with the shifting soils that are a reality in low-lying bayous." Pilings through the foundation anchor the home and are deep enough to support a house lashed by fierce winds and storm surges.

"If you're going to splurge a little, splurge on the roof and foundations," said Fugate. "If you can keep your house from floating away or leaking, that's half the battle."

The design calls for volunteers to build homes that eventually stand high above the ground—a place most workers are wary of going.

"Our idea is to build the house low and then lift it onto pilings when it's completed. Volunteers—and professionals—get nervous when they have to work on a platform," said Fugate. "To my knowledge, no one who uses volunteers has looked at stilt housing before. The big idea of building it on the ground and lifting it on stilts is our solution."

The students are still exploring the most efficient—and most affordable—means of lifting the house once it is built. One technique student Matt Hodge finds compelling is a chain hoist, which uses a pulley set on top of the pilings to hoist the house with chains.

"It's potentially safer because you don't have anyone under the house while you're lifting," said Hodge, whose background is in civil engineering.

Next steps

With the design 98 percent complete, the next stage of the effort calls for the SIGUS group to work with local engineers to approve the concept and create a set of drawings that meet local building codes, said Goethert.

"When you talk about new ways of doing things, it takes a lot of talk," said Goethert. "You've got to change mindsets."

SIGUS and MIT are planning a two-week program in July for MIT volunteers interested in helping TRAC move forward in the realization of the first of these homes and to help repair damaged houses in the bayou. In the first house to test and design, contractors will set the pilings and build the bulk of the homes themselves, with volunteers being used to help with the finish work inside.

Once the design and construction kinks are ironed out, Oxfam and MIT hope to see other volunteers and local community groups pick up the design, enlist an army of helpers, and begin to build affordable, storm-resistant houses wherever people need them.

To help those crews avoid potential pitfalls in the process, SIGUS students are also developing a hands-on guide for the aid groups. Called "Going Up?" it will be chockfull of tips on smart ways to work with coastal communities and on coordinating all the different elements—supplies, engineering, design, construction, finance—needed to get the project accomplished.

"All too often, academics' great ideas never have the opportunity to be tested in the real world, while local community groups rarely have the resources to tap the best and the brightest or apply innovative concepts born in the classroom to their local realities," said Bernadette Orr, Oxfam's Gulf Coast emergency program manager.

"The Lift House project will be an opportunity for MIT and TRAC to bring those two worlds together in a way that will create tangible benefits all around. We know that the Lift House is going to attract a lot of attention and, we hope, replication once it goes up.

"We plan to help promote the manual with local groups working on affordable housing all along the Gulf Coast, so there could be many Lift Houses that eventually get constructed from Mississippi west to Lake Charles."

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