Fred A. Bernstein

Good Things in Small Packages

West Village resident Marianne Cusato designs Katrina Cottages

Published in The New York Times, November 5, 2006

MARIANNE CUSATO'S apartment is small (11 by 28 feet) and architecturally uninspired. But ask her where she lives, and she'll light up as she describes the spot: the corner of Perry and West Fourth Streets, in what may well be the quaintest part of Greenwich Village. For what she pays in rent - $1,785 a month - she could have more space in another location, she said, "but I would rather live here than in a bigger apartment somewhere else."

Because, if Ms. Cusato doesn't have great architecture, she feels as though she does. From her fifth-floor window, she looks out across the street at the cornices of two buildings, which, as a classically trained architect, she can describe in detail.

"This one's Doric; that one's Corinthian," she said, pointing to the architraves, metopes, triglyphs and other features derived from the parts of Greek temples. The proximity to classical architecture, and the promise of street life whenever she exits the building, keep Ms. Cusato feeling connected, both to history and to community, she said.

Ms. Cusato's belief - that even a small space can feel expansive, if it's part of something larger - has informed what has become her most important project thus far: designing a series of tiny houses for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Early next year, Lowe's, the home improvement chain, is to begin selling two of her Katrina Cottages as kits. A buyer will be able to acquire everything needed to build a house, from the ceiling trusses down to the last can of paint, in a single transaction. Prices will begin at about $45 a square foot, or $27,000 for the smallest cottage, according to Jennifer Wilson, a spokeswoman for Lowe's, which is based in Mooresville, N.C.

The prices do not include the foundation or heating and cooling equipment, which vary too much from place to place to be included in the kits, according to David Steed, Lowe's senior vice president for merchandising of building materials. Mr. Steed added: "Marianne is the hero of the whole thing, going back to when the storm first hit."

Now that Congress has appropriated $400 million for alternatives to the ubiquitous FEMA trailers, there is a possibility that her cottages will become as popular as the Levittown houses were after World War II.

But unlike Levittown houses, which were largely unadorned, Ms. Cusato's cottages make an extra effort to incorporate historical detailing. More than 90 percent of residential architecture in this country is traditional, Ms. Cusato said, and that suits her fine. Growing up in Alaska in the 1980s, she disliked much of the development she saw. Around age 12, she recalled, she announced that "I want to be architect, but I won't do strip malls."

Ms. Cusato, now 32, studied architecture at the University of Notre Dame, where students learn, and draw, the components of classical architecture. After graduation, while working for an architecture firm in Charlotte, N.C., she formed a relationship with Andrés Duany, the designer of New Urbanist towns across the country. Through Mr. Duany, she met the British architect Leon Krier, with whom she has collaborated on a forthcoming book, "Get Your House Right: How to Avoid Common Mistakes in Today's Traditional Architecture" (Sterling Publishing). The volume is meant to show people how to design houses, of any size, with appropriately scaled details, Ms. Cusato said.

In 1999, she moved to New York - a place she had always wanted to live, she said - and took a job at Fairfax & Sammons, designers of expensive homes with classical detailing. That job, she said, gave her important experience she can now apply to creating affordable housing - her real life's goal. As she puts it, "You need to know the rules before you know which ones to break."

Her chance came in 2005. Days after Katrina, Mr. Duany was drafted by Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, to provide advice on how to rebuild devastated coastal cities. Mr. Duany invited a team of architects to spend part of October with him in Biloxi. During that time, Ms. Cusato sketched what became her first Katrina Cottage. Three months later, Mr. Duany got a chance to display a prototype at the International Builders' Show in Orlando, Fla.

Some of the New Urbanist proposals have been controversial, but the cottage was a hit. "People fell in love with it," Mr. Duany said. One reason, he said, is that Ms. Cusato's cottages - unlike their prefabricated competitors - don't have to be designed to fit on trucks. "Having to put a house on a truck pretty much guarantees bad proportions," Mr. Duany said.

Lowe's will initially market four of what it calls "Lowe's Katrina Cottages"; two were designed by Ms. Cusato. One is 544 square feet and the other is 936. The smaller of the two has a pair of bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room and a kitchen on one floor; Ms. Cusato said she imagines it as "an accessory building or clustered in a village."

The larger of the two has a separate dining room and a second story containing two bedrooms and one bathroom; it can be expanded later with an add-on master bedroom suite. Both cottages have 9-foot ceilings, which Ms. Cusato said is important not only for aesthetics, but for air flow.

Models should be appearing in Lowe's parking lots in Louisiana and Mississippi by the end of this month, Ms. Wilson said.

Before she teamed up with Lowe's, Ms. Cusato sold three sets of Katrina cottage blueprints, for which she earned a total of $900. Now Lowe's, which will pay her a small royalty, could begin selling houses by the thousands. Ms. Wilson said, "We already have a database of over 10,000 people who've expressed their interest in the Lowe's Katrina Cottages, not only as permanent housing along the Gulf Coast but as second homes or mother-in-law suites around the country."

The company is still working out some of the details, like how many deliveries each purchaser will receive. "You don't want to have appliances sitting around while you're framing the house," Ms. Cusato explained.

In some parts of the Gulf Coast, finding workers to build the houses could be a problem. Luckily, Ms. Cusato has been fielding calls from people who want to build the cottages, including college students looking for volunteer projects. "We're working on having things ready by spring break," she said.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Cusato has not had a lot of time to work on her own apartment. Her biggest intervention was eliminating a closet - "something no New Yorker ever does" - by removing its door. That left a niche just big enough for the head of her bed. Thanks to the niche, "when I'm in bed, I don't feel like I'm in the kitchen," she said, "though I can still touch the refrigerator."

Likewise, with her drafting table as a room divider, she can sit on her sofa and not feel as if she's in her kitchen or her bedroom, though both are part of the same room. "It's a studio, and you can't quite get away from that," she said, "but you can create real spaces that feel separate.

"It's the same in the Katrina Cottages."