Post-Katrina Mississippi preHAB designs affordable, ecological homes
|The preHAB project is a partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville and Habitat for Humanity of Jackson County, Miss. The environmentally responsive prototype house is one of seven panelized homes for Katrina relief efforts funded by John and Renee Grisham as part of Habitat for Humanity International’s “Operation Home Delivery,” a Habitat effort to send houses to Louisiana and southern Mississippi.
By Jane Ford
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 and active 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 the ecoMOD2 team 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.
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 includes cross ventilation and solutions that capture natural sunlight while protecting from solar gain, and multi-use 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 ecological plan. Steel and foam panels for the exterior walls and roof provide a thermal barrier that reduces heating and cooling needs while 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. The students worked in a hangar at U.Va.’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. It was an important lesson in the practical side and the consequences of the decisions you make as a designer, she said.
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.
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, adapted for operation on 120-volt electricity, will supply “most of the regular energy needs for most of the time,” said Benjamin Kidd, a graduate electrical engineering student. They decided to mount the eight solar panels flush with the roof so they won’t be blown away in high winds, Hickey said. The decision was a compromise between optimum solar gain and wind protection.
Fourth-year engineering student Michael Pilat made a site trip to Mississippi. He saw first-hand “the presence of trees and where they are located,” which helped the students in their decision-making process he said.
The students learned that decision-making in a real-life situation often involves 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.
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 a how-to booklet they are creating to show others how to build the house.
“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.
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.