Rebuilding New Orleans: architecture students shine in post-Katrina contest

Posted on Wednesday, April 1, 2009
New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, showing Interstate 10 looking towards Lake Pontchartrain. The block shaped building at the left front is a pumping station used to pump water from heavy rains off city streets in more normal time. / Photo: Wikipedia Commoms

New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, showing Interstate 10 looking towards Lake Pontchartrain. The block shaped building at the left front is a pumping station used to pump water from heavy rains off city streets in more normal time. / Photo: Wikipedia Commoms

By Cynthia Lee

When Hurricane Katrina slammed the U.S. southeastern coast in August 2005, it left a path of death and destruction in its wake.

One of the most catastrophic natural disasters in U.S. history, Katrina hit hardest in New Orleans, where a massive storm surge breached almost every one of the city’s levees. As a result, almost 80 per cent of the city was engulfed in floodwaters, with some parts under 15 feet (4.5 m) of water. Katrina’s fury damaged or destroyed some 204,000 homes in the Big Easy and forced more than 800,000 citizens from their homes. Today, almost four years after the fact, reconstruction efforts are still underway in the city.

In December 2008, McGill Architecture professor Michael Jemtrud received an invitation for his students to participate in the Billes Architecture Home Design Competition to design new homes for Katrina’s New Orleans victims. Seeing a unique opportunity to get students to design projects to fulfill the needs of real people, Jemtrud, who is also the Director of the School of Architecture, jumped at the chance.

“The fact that the contest is sponsored by a firm from New Orleans demonstrates an extraordinary commitment to the community,” said Jemtrud. “And the proposal itself piqued the interest of students in a way I did not anticipate.

“In the end, they are the ones that pushed it.”

And push it they did. Students were asked to design homes with one of four neighborhoods in mind: Uptown, Downtown, Gentilly/Lakeview, and New Orleans East.  Each neighborhood came with its own set of criteria including setbacks, height restrictions, lot sizes and more.

Each submission was reviewed by a judging panel that included notable industry experts, from CEOs of major construction companies to editors of design magazines. The finalists were chosen based on criteria that included aesthetics, feasibility, cost and use of green building techniques and materials. The aim is to generate a series of cutting-edge designs for single-family homes that could be built on empty lots in many of the still-devastated areas of New Orleans.

When the ten finalists were announced recently, no fewer than seven came from McGill. “The results speak volumes,” said Jemtrud. “They are very talented, hardworking, intelligent students and are a real joy to work with. Considering the time frame and their workload, they produced solid, decisive designs.”

Jemtrud and the finalists  will be flown to New Orleans for the announcement of the winning design, with as many as five finalists set to receive prizes of $1,000. Win or lose, Jemtrud is proud of the effort of all
the McGill entrants. “This is a very strong group and I believe representative of the School as a whole,” he said. “The inherent diversity, passion and sophistication of our students is nurtured by the tight community that makes the School of Architecture. It is an extraordinary alchemy we work hard
to maintain.”

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