preHAB designs affordable, ecological home for post-Katrina Mississippi

School of Architecture
90 undergraduate degrees
71 graduate degrees (69 Masters and 2 Ph.D.s)

The School of Architecture lent its expertise and talents to explore ways to rebuild New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. These efforts included volunteer trips to assist in clean-up, public lectures by faculty and eight classes, offered at the undergraduate and graduate level, that explored through study and design ways to revive the Gulf Coast.

May 14, 2006 —The challenge of combining ecological technologies with the need for affordable housing in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast occupied the minds and talents of 18 University of Virginia students taking part in a unique student/faculty project.

The interdisciplinary team of undergraduate and graduate students in the School of Architecture and the School of Engineering and Applied Science teamed up throughout the spring semester to create a Habitat for Humanity home to be constructed in Gautier, Miss. Along the way, they tackled issues related to high winds, humidity, moisture and hurricanes, and employed passive solar technologies to build preHAB, a prototype environmentally responsive panelized house kit — the second house in ecoMOD, a multi-year research and design / build / evaluate project at the School of Architecture.

"The opportunity to expand the ecoMOD project to include a house for a family displaced by Katrina has helped my students and me clarify our design priorities. With such strict financial and technical constraints, we have been forced to make difficult choices. Yet constraints can be a very productive framework for a design project,” said assistant professor of architecture John Quale, who serves as project director and created the preliminary design to give the one-semester project a kick start.

An overarching question they faced was how to achieve a beautiful solution with inexpensive materials through design and ecological strategies that will also produce quality, said graduate student Amy Lewandowski, the project manager for the endeavor. “What are we doing if we cannot design for everyone?”

The design team incorporated cross ventilation and solutions that capture natural sunlight while protecting from solar gain, and expanded the livable space by including multi-use swing spaces that blur the definition of outside and inside. They maximized interior spaces by designing built-in cabinetry and closets in interior walls and using high ceilings to give a sense of spaciousness.

Decisions about the materials used were also critical to the overall ecological plan. Steel and foam panels for the exterior walls and roof provide a thermal barrier that reduces heating and cooling needs while also protecting against mildew, a condition that plagues houses susceptible to flooding and high humidity.

“The Katrina disaster opened up a whole new realm of possibilities to rethink the ethics of building,” said fourth-year student Ginger Koons. “It’s an opportunity to start on a whole new level with what we know about smart building and new ways of building and construction techniques.”

The project is a hands-on experience for all involved. For weeks the students worked in a hangar at the University’s decommissioned Milton Airport, building interior walls and cabinetry, and modifying exterior wall panels.

“I love the idea of taking something off the page or off the computer and building it,” said fourth-year student Ginny Wambaugh, who praised the hands-on aspect of the experience. It was an important lesson in the practical side and the consequences of the decisions you make as a designer, she said. “How do you order materials? It’s not enough to know that there is siding. You have to know how much.”

The practical side was an eye opener for the engineering students as well.

“It forces them to address a project from a more holistic approach and consider cost, the particular location and conditions. It puts their technical work into context,” said engineering professor Paxton Marshall, who is coordinating the work of the engineering students.

“Engineering education is very science-based. You learn general principles but do not often get to apply them in real world projects.”

Fourth-year mechanical engineer Brian Hickey praised the experience. “To take ownership of the project makes it more rewarding and makes you more passionate about it,” he said.

The house will be fitted with a scavenger system to reclaim heat from the heat pump to make hot water. A photovoltaic (solar panel) array, obtained through a grant from Solar Light for Africa, which the engineers needed to adapt for operation on 120-volt electricity, will supply “most of the regular energy needs for most of the time,” said Benjamin Kidd, a graduate mechanical engineering student. In considering the angle for the photovoltaics that would produce optimum power, a decision was made early in the design process to mount the eight panels flush with the roof so they won’t be blown away in high winds, Hickey said. The decision was a compromise between optimum gain and wind protection.

Fourth-year engineering student Michael Pilat learned the need to gather information specific to the project on a trip to Mississippi to visit the site. Seeing first-hand “the presence of trees and where they are located helped us in our decision-making process,” he said.

The students learned that the realities of decision-making in a real-life situation often involve compromise, just as they saw that working in multi-disciplinary teams can create an atmosphere of collaboration and cross-pollination.

“As engineers working with architects we learn to be more free-flowing and artistic in our design and the architects, hopefully, learn to be more analytical,” Kidd said.

Architecture graduate student Tommy Solomon, the construction administrator for the project, agrees with the value of learning to share ideas with others. Throughout the process they had to question every aspect of the design, he said. “How do you build it? How do you make the parts? How does it all go together?” For him, the greatest lessons he learned from the experience are: “Ask why. Ask how.”

Many of the students will travel to Mississippi to help assemble the house. They will work hand-in-hand with Habitat for Humanity workers on the construction and refine the booklet they are creating, a how-to primer for creating the house.

“The project is almost like a kit-in-parts that Habitat could use in the future,” said Soloman. “The whole process needs to be user-friendly.”

“I believe we've come up with a strategy that will not only efficiently and comfortably house a family in need, but demonstrate to Habitat for Humanity the potential of sustainably designed prefabrication," Quale said.