Thom Mayne of architecture firm Morphosis is regarded as one of the country’s elite “starchitects”, having won the Pritzker Prize in 2005 (the “Oscars” of architecture) and designed numerous award-winning buildings, including our own, infamous San Francisco Federal Building (I say infamous because of well-publicized mixed reviews on the utility of the space and the building’s inability to become LEED certified despite it’s well-known efforts to be recognized. To be fair, the building is definitely a “green” structure).
Mayne, who is also a professor at UCLA’s architecture and design school, recently became involved in designing something much less sexy than highly-visible and expensive public spaces: flood-safe, affordable, sustainable housing. Mayne, whose firm is based in LA, was tapped by fellow star Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation to help rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Morphosis developed the project’s original concept and Mayne’s students helped flesh it out and build it.
The result of their efforts is what looks to be a hybrid of a modern ranch house and a mobile home. While mobile home doesn’t sound so flattering, the Float House’s primary innovation is what gives it the mobile home aesthetic of sitting on stilts – because the house is, kind of. Underneath the entire house is a four foot tall polystyrene foam coated in glass-fiber-reinforced concrete “chassis” that is designed to support and float the house up to 12 feet high on fixed guide posts if water levels ever reach that in the event of a major flood. Though the chassis can support the house and its contents so that catastrophic damage is minimized and the house can be preserved after a disaster, occupants must be evacuated. Mayne and his team did not invent this technology, rather they brought it over from the Netherlands, a country that has 27% of its land mass below sea level and is a pioneer of water-based housing. Nevertheless, the Float House is the first one of this type permitted in the U.S.
From a design perspective, what Mayne’s team has created given their design requirements is remarkable. The exterior is an interesting mix of textures, colors, elevations and window placement, giving the house an eclectic, high-end look that is very Morphosis for its undulating, asymmetric planes. Most notable is the dynamic, butterfly-shaped roof, which features an integrated hurricane shutter along one side of the house and transforms into a polycarbonate, clerestory overhang that allows light into the long gallery beneath it. The roof even has integrated photovoltaic panels and channels rainwater into collection tanks. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that this house should become LEED Platinum rated (the highest you can get), based on the mix of high-performance systems and prefabrication methods.
Inside, the spaces are tight, which is to be expected considering its diminutive 1000 square foot size. But since all rooms open onto the well-lit gallery that runs the length of the house, it appears to have an open feel. The public space is a smart kitchen, dining and living room combination. Barn-style doors and numerous built-ins make efficient use of the space. The design team even found a way to even incorporate a New Orleans architectural and cultural detail: a front porch.
I love the overall design of this house, appreciating the thought and detail that went into it, considering the challenging design requirements. While this project may not be considered a huge commission for Mayne, I think this project may have been as rewarding or more for him than his other, more glamorous projects. This project’s design, inspiration and innovation all contribute to a well- deserved, feel-good story for New Orleans. I wouldn’t be surprised if this project becomes award-winning in the near future…
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