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Housing expert discusses work in bayou

Reinhard Goethert helping rebuild stricken Louisiana

For Reinhard Goethert, principal research associate in architecture, heading to Louisiana after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck last summer seemed only natural given his extensive work on settlement housing around the world.��

As director of MIT's Special Interest Group in Urban Settlement (SIGUS), Goethert has been working on Lift House, a housing design and building initiative in Houma, La., where many homes were destroyed by the hurricanes and their aftermath.

Other partners in the project are Oxfam America and the Terrebonne Readiness and Assistance Coalition (TRAC), a Louisiana-based nongovernmental organization.

Goethert is no stranger to this kind of work, having worked throughout the world on settlement housing programs. Most recently he worked in Indonesia, particularly in Banda Aceh on the island of Sumatra, which was destroyed by the December 2004 tsunami.

He is well known for his work in community-driven planning, and he received a United Nations Habitat Scroll of Honor for his "outstanding contributions in community action."

Recently, Goethert talked with the MIT News Office about his experiences working in two such vastly different cultures.

Q: How would you say Houma and Indonesia are similar?

A: It is surprising how New Orleans and Banda Aceh are so similar. Both lost large portions of the population, through death in Indonesia, through dispersal in New Orleans. Both still are struggling with reconstruction now, one year later. Both lack clear directions from authorities on what and how to rebuild, and there have been constantly shifting policies.

Q: What have been your impressions of Houma and the bayou area?

A: Damage in that coastal region was not as severe as one sees in Ward Nine, New Orleans. Some wind damage is noted, but mostly the flooding is what caused the biggest problems. It required gutting and rebuilding the insides of the houses.

But my strongest impression is of the very hospitable people. The general easygoing atmosphere and the optimism of the people made one almost forget the damage, the poverty and the bleak housing future.

Q: Why did you choose to work in Houma over New Orleans?

A: It was felt that the rural coastal areas were neglected and efforts (and funds) were focused on New Orleans, to the detriment of the very poor coastal areas.

Houma was seen as the entry to focus on the neglected rural coastal areas with its underlying widespread poverty which makes rebuilding much more difficult.

Q: What are some of the challenges you encountered in Houma?

A: As with most new ideas, our Lift House project -- with an innovative "build-on-the-ground with volunteers, then elevate onto piles" concept -- has been slow in getting acceptance. Although lifting a new house was developed on relatively common practices, there is reluctance to be the first. The changing regulations and the unclear rebuilding policies of government made it all more complicated.

Q: What challenges were presented by being an outsider in both Louisiana and Indonesia?

A: In both you see an outpouring of imposed housing designs completely foreign to the culture and by outsiders with no experience in local culture. It seems that maintaining a link to previous housing form rebuilds a sense of security and continuity.

Clearly the role of the architect needs to be revisited in disaster situations: Instead of imposing a design, they need to work as equals with local communities in designing replacement homes.

Q: How was the funding different in both regions?

A: More funds were committed early on in Indonesia, with less delay during the emergency phase. Funds in Indonesia came from multiple international sources, whereas in New Orleans most reliance was on government and insurance sources.

In Indonesia after nine months, it was discovered that rebuilding of houses was oversubscribed, and aid agencies competed to find receptive communities in which to build, an unusual twist which did not bring out the best in aid agencies.

Q: What other differences did you encounter?

A: A big difference was the focus on community rebuilding in Indonesia versus individual rebuilding in New Orleans. Aid agencies focused on communities as the basis for their funding programs. In the U.S. it tends to be individually based: FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) aid to homeowners, insurance aid to homeowners, etc. Only now does one see communities assert themselves in the U.S. and use community strength to seek rebuilding assistance.

Q: What are your ongoing plans in Louisiana?

A: We envision four key initiatives: developing the Lift House concept; improving the permitting process and upgrading housing quality through increased code compliance; developing an outreach program for 'little Nicks' (the informal do-it-yourself builders); and finally, using the prototype houses to test innovations in construction and in materials.

We intend to make the houses a part of a larger demonstration and outreach program for the bayous, and make available the plans and concepts to others throughout the coastal areas of the southern United States.

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