Coping with New Orleans’ extreme weather through architecture

It is fair to say that the aftermath of Katrina impacted the construction of many of the New Orleans homes that we see today. Post-Katrina New Orleans housing has experienced somewhat of a makeover since the disaster, especially the areas of the city that were most devastated by the storm, such as the lower-ninth ward. Still, the presence of New Orleans’s unique, adaptable housing styles dates all the way back to the 19th-century. The history of New Orleans architecture embodies various styles arising mainly in the 19th-century, such as Creole, Greek Revival, Rococo, and Victorian. Whilst the beauty of these styles certainly was not something to be overlooked, these homes also had to cater to the needs of the families living in the city. During the Antebellum era, New Orleans became more of a commercial sector in the United States; this was largely due to the introduction of the steamboat, natural gas manufacturing, and the emergence of Canal Street and the French Quarter. New Orleans was one of the most integral port cities for American trade and transportation. By 1840, New Orleans was the third-most populated city in the United States. New Orleans is a city constructed well-below sea level, with an average elevation of between one to two feet below the water. This statistic does not bode well fro New Orleans, because the city gets over 60 inches of rainfall on average each year and is one of the hottest cities in the country. In the 1840s, a time with little margin for error and as the city was growing rapidly, architects in New Orleans found ways to make the homes in the city safe enough and desirable enough to live in. These homes were large or modest, stately or expressive, frilly or refined, but together they composed the visual context for life in New Orleans’ neighborhoods

18th-century New Orleans dealt with extreme weather that the architecture at the time could not compete with. Towards the end of the 18th-century, a series of disasters torpedoed the city with tropical storms. They hit New Orleans in 1776, 1779, 1781, and 1794. One hurricane that hit New Orleans in August of 1780 destroyed crops, leveled buildings, and reportedly sank every vessel that had been afloat in the Mississippi and area lakes. The city’s inhabitants became frustrated, and they felt that investing in homes in New Orleans was far too dangerous. These disasters changed the city’s landscape mightily, forcing the architects to reconsider how they would approach housing in a city whose population was growing rapidly. New Orleans had not yet learned to cope with the health hazards brought on by its sudden growth; drinking water came from the river, no sewerage system existed, drainage was deficient, and flooding destroyed many homes even after moderate rainstorms. In response, the city took with new construction regulations that would help the city’s architects deal with the extreme weather that continuously burdened the city.

Times-Picayune from March 3, 1841’s explaining the extreme weather conditions of New Orleans

Long before the current drainage system of pipes, canals, and pumping stations, New Orleanians designed buildings that were structured to alleviate flood damage. Starting in the 1840s-50s, architects began pumping out townhouses called Creole and American townhouses. Townhouses are two-story buildings, often masonry, and are found most commonly in neighborhoods such as today’s Central Business District, the French Quarter, and Faubourg Marigny. These houses were constructed with a purpose: in case of flooding, the lower levels were used as storage spaces, not living spaces, and they were built of solid brick covered in painted stucco, which is water resistant. Their walls were constructed of soft brick that was placed between wooden posts and covered in wooden boards. The architecture was designed to get wet and then dry out — over and over. Today, we would call this approach “wet flood-proofing.” Further, architects built the living space in these townhouses above the commercial storage space on the lower level. This design allowed the living spaces in the houses to remain above the water if an emergency arose.

It was essential for architects to build elevation in order to combat the consistent flooding in New Orleans. However, this was not the only challenge the architects dealt with. New Orleans is known for its extreme heat, and in 1841, there was no air conditioning to compensate for the unfavorable weather. Architects used “passive” or “bioclimatic” design strategies in attempt to combat the heat. Bioclimatic architecture refers to the practice of designing buildings and spaces in order to provide thermal and visual comfort.

An example of architecture that is designed to be flood resistant. (Photo by Thom Smith)

This type of architecture differs based on local climate and makes use of solar energy and other similar environmental sources. In the 19th century, walls were painted light colors to reflect the sun, roofs were built steep to shed rain, and covered porches were installed on the fronts and backs of houses to protect from both rain and hot sun. In addition, the attics in townhouses and cottages served as insulating air spaces. Houses were often positioned above the street in order to catch breezes, and large doors and windows were positioned to create cross ventilation and to let in daylight. Moreover, houses were multifaceted in their architectural purpose, making life in New Orleans a lot easier than it was prior to the 19th century.

Following Hurricane Katrina, housing in the city of New Orleans once again experienced natural setbacks. Over 80% of the city’s residents found their houses leveled by the flooding. Early New Orleans architecture was pioneered in the mid-19th century, helping architects in the future deal with natural disasters such as Katrina. The post-Katrina architectural response would not have been what it was if it weren’t for the architectural measures taken by the architects of the 19th-century. One example of the preservation of New Orleans’s architectural history was the Asem Pa solution. The Asem Pa was an affordable housing solution for the Lower 9th Ward area of New Orleans, still devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. According to the Adjaye Associates’ website, Asem Pa’s main goal was “to preserve the local identity, cultural influences, and pre-Katrina architecture while staying mindful of the environmental and safety control.” The FLOAT house design was made post-Katrina to survive floodwaters and sustain water and power needs. These FLOAT houses were reinterpretations of 19th-century shotgun homes, elevated to a point where they could act as rafts if the bottom commercial basement unit was flooded. Post-Katrina, these FLOAT houses emphasized the architectural craze of raising houses even higher. Homes were rising on guideposts of up to 12 feet as water levels rose. These demonstrations showcased the adaptive measures that modern-day architects got from their predecessors. The spaces in the basements of homes that integrated plumbing, mechanical, electrical, and sustainable systems still remain post-Katrina. Being able to adapt to obscene weather experiences in New Orleans was always at the forefront of architects’ minds in the city. Although they have dealt with terrible natural occurrences over the years, the tradition and history of New Orleans’s architecture remain intact.



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