• MIT's Special Interest Group in Urban Settlement has developed a modular unit house that accommodates different family sizes, is tailored to bayou culture and stands on flood-resistant stilts.

    Illustration / Non Arkaraprasertkul

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Housing designed with Louisiana in mind

An MIT expert in settlement housing is leading an effort to rebuild part of hurricane-ravaged Louisiana.

Reinhard Goethert, principal research associate in architecture, is director of the Special Interest Group in Urban Settlement (SIGUS) in architecture and planning, a group working on a housing design and building initiative in the bayou region near Houma, southwest of New Orleans, where hurricane floods destroyed many homes last summer.

The group will provide expertise in design, structural, lifting and environmental issues, family issues and volunteer management.

"Managing volunteers in a bayou building project means doing a lot of teaching," Goethert said.

SIGUS is working jointly with Oxfam America and the Terrebonne Readiness and Assistance Coalition (TRAC), a Louisiana-based nongovernmental organization, on LIFT House, a housing design and building initiative.

Goethert, who teaches courses on urbanization, design and housing in developing countries, has developed settlement housing programs throughout the world, most recently in areas of Indonesia destroyed by the tsunami. He has received a United Nations Habitat Scroll of Honor for his "outstanding contributions in community action."

Goethert and Joel Turkel, lecturer in architecture, are advising the MIT SIGUS team, which includes three architecture students, two urban planning students and three advisors from the department's Building Technology Section.

The LIFT House collaboration is developing concepts for housing to be built during the summer. The SIGUS team addresses what types of houses to build, how to build them (including how to hoist them onto flood-proof platforms, 8 to 10 feet above ground) and how best to balance management of unskilled and semi-skilled volunteers and community participation and stability while meeting necessary construction and building codes.

"The less skilled the volunteers, the more supervision they need. We have to come to grips with the reality, learned in previous hurricanes like Andrew, that the quality of construction matters: You have to use nails, not staples, for example. You have to do what works, not what seems to work," Goethert said.

SIGUS has developed a modular unit house that accommodates different family sizes, is tailored to bayou culture and goes up on flood-resistant stilts; a guide to site management and supervision of volunteers; and another guide comparing the rates at which various stages of construction can be accomplished relative to the varying skill levels of volunteers.

Goethert and his MIT colleagues have produced materials for use by Oxfam, TRAC and other recovery-based organizations, so the Institute's contribution to recovery in the Gulf Coast region will be both long-term and sustainable.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 5, 2006 (download PDF).

Topics: Architecture, Urban studies and planning, Volunteering, outreach, public service


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