Just when I thought the local, state, and federal government had its head up its collective disaster management, I received an email from Bruce Lindsey, professor and co-director of Rural Studio. They are indeed working hard to respond to the damage done by Katrina:

“We are working through some ideas in addition to helping to repair houses in Hale County. The Rural Studio has also been contributing to a College wide effort. We are continuing with work, school wide and are also working with HUD to form an organization of 10 universities to bring their design and planning schools resources to bear on the problem from a bottom up perspective. It is being directed by an inspired White House fellow. I am optimistic.”

While I await a response from Bruce to learn who’s the inspired White House fellow, there is more news to the Studios Katrina related activities. Aside from the project mentioned above Rural Studio is already working with FEMA to create housing and communities for displaced families.

Last week “…FEMA officials [met] with the people or Rural Studio to review a proposal to provide the federal disaster agency with “research, precedent and feasibility studies as well masterplans, models, and schematic designs to establish an array of ‘container housing’ communities of 100 to 10,000 inhabitants.”

Already underway is Katrina Response, a plan to develop the previously mentioned ‘container housing’, the brain child of Rural Studio student Michael Grote.

“I have to say that this is not a completely original idea,” Grote said. “The idea of using these containers has been kicked around for quite a while now. My Design/Build group’s project was going to integrate them into a house we were designing. We were discussing that project when the disaster hit.”

Someone pinch me, I can’t believe this is actually happening!

The Studio’s plan calls for transforming these cargo boxes into dwellings with “natural light and ventilation, a wall air-conditioning unit, ceiling fans, electrical power and storage, including a small refrigerator.” While the units will not have kitchen or bathroom facilities they will include a water system that is compatible with FEMA’s water containers.

And because the shelters are built from shipping containers they are already compatible with a global shipping system. The large 8′ x 9′ x 40′ homes can be re-used in future disasters and taken across country, or the world, easily without requiring special transport.

It’s ideas like these that you just have to stand in awe — disaster response housing that can be shipping anywhere in the world using industry standard methods. Fantastic!

Ruth Mouton, Auburn University’s Wilborn Chair in Building Science — the school responsible for Rural Studio — considers these units will be a vastly superior to what is available to FEMA currently and calls the structures “a humane alternative to tents.”

“The tents that you normally see, I think, would not offer real comfort. These units would be off the wet ground, have hardwood floors, air conditioning and would provide protection from mosquitoes and other insects and animals. They would offer more dignity to the folks that have been affected by this. Dignity and hope.”

The cost for repurposing each container will come to $2,500, not including the original price of the container itself. In his email, Bruce that the program will “…likely be able to use some help,” but no specifics were mentioned as to what can be done specifically to assist in this program. When I know more, so you will you.

Given all the negativity surrounding Katrina recently, I am encouraged to see that not all is lost when it comes to sense and sensibility in this country. I can only imagine that the results of Rural Studio’s efforts will not only restore a bit of dignity to Katrina victims, but also serve as a model for reconstruction, community building, and repurposing.

Godspeed Rural Studio, let us know what we can do to help.

UPDATE: Apparently I misread who’s doing what and there they’re from. Rural Studio is envolved but as a part of a larger effort from AU. Bruce wrote in this morning with a correction:

One note of clarification: the container efforts are done by students in the new Design Build Masters Program (started by Rural Studio co-founder D.K. Ruth) in the department of Building Science (Mike Grote, Linda Ruth). It is not the Rural Studio. The Rural Studio is continuing to focus its specific efforts in Hale County where it can do its most effective work. The School of Architecture as a whole and the design build group in Auburn, infused with the Rural Studio ethic, are working on a broader front.

And while I’m updating this post I’d love to hear how other universities may be involved in the response to Katrina — and now Rita. I’d like to think other college programs are bringing their collective brain power to make things better.