New Orleans to Ambergris Caye - The Origins of Mahogany Bay Architecture

The following guest blog post was written in first-person by Mahogany Bay Village architect and designer, Steve Mouzon, of the town planning and architectural design firm, Studio Sky. Learn the story behind MBV's SmartDwellings, a design that originated to help rebuild New Orleans and the Mississippi Coast after Hurricane Katrina, and ended up being gorgeously reinterpreted for Mahogany Bay Resort a dozen years later.

Steve Mouzon, Studio Sky architect who designed Mahogany Bay Village.

 

The birth of the architecture of Mahogany Bay began when the Hurricane Katrina monster made landfall near the Mississippi/Louisiana border in 2005. I was on the road for several days before and after landfall, and came home thoroughly exhausted and emotionally drained from watching those events unfold that week in one of my favorite parts of the world. Wanda, my wife, greeted me at the office door the evening of September 2 and said “you must call Michael Barranco right now. It’s urgent.”

Michael Barranco was an architect based in Jackson, Mississippi, and New Urban Guild member who made everything else in this post possible. I founded the New Urban Guild in 2001 to be a group of collegial “architects with humility” who are skilled at working in New Urbanism. Nobody exemplified this ideal better than Michael, who died in a car crash in 2011. The Guild bestows the Barranco Award for Architecture each year in his honor. But back to 2005...

Michael said “Steve, we’re assembling a Governor’s Commission to figure out how to rebuild the Mississippi coast, and we’d like you to come and speak to us about rebuilding according to the principles of the New Urbanism.” I said “That’s far too big a job for me; let me call Andrés Duany.” The next morning, I went to city planning & architectural firm Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) and met Andrés, and he said, “that’s too big for me as well; we need to call in the entire Congress for the New Urbanism.” And so he picked up the phone and called the CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), John Norquist, setting in motion what became the largest planning event in human history, otherwise known as the Mississippi Renewal Forum.

 

Andrés Duany, along with his wife and business partner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, were two of the co-founders of the New Urbanism movement a quarter-century ago. Also known as Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND), the New Urbanism seeks to build places that are compact, mixed-use, and walkable, like Mahogany Bay Village.

I returned to DPZ the next day, and Andrés and I spent that Saturday afternoon laying out the next steps. He said that some of the emergency housing installed in Homestead, Florida after Hurricane Andrew (1992) had been removed just one year before Katrina (2005.) “Some children started first grade and graduated from high school living in the same FEMA trailer. We really must do better than that.” So our first conception of the Katrina Cottages was “FEMA trailers with dignity.”

Katrina Cottage I was the first model constructed of multiple early designs. It was designed by Marianne Cusato and displayed at the 2006 International Builders Show in Orlando.

It didn’t take long for that mission to grow. Early numbers suggested that a quarter-million homes had been lost in New Orleans alone. The New Orleans construction industry had been building roughly 1,000 homes per year before the storm, and at that rate, it would take 250 years to rebuild! Clearly, we had to be able to deliver housing through every means available: conventional construction, panelized houses, modular houses, and manufactured houses.

A FEMA trailer sits in front of a home in New Orleans' Lakeview section in this photo from 2009. Image courtesy of Bill Haber/Associated Press.

It also became clear that the FEMA trailers were more expensive than they seemed. Although FEMA wasn’t forthcoming with the numbers, the evidence we could gather suggested that the entire cost of manufacturing, commissioning, decommissioning, and disposal could be $50,000 to $70,000 per trailer! If the Katrina Cottages fulfilled the first mission of having dignity, why couldn’t they be permanent as well? Weren’t we being good stewards of the government’s money if we could use that money to build cottages that would last for a hundred years, not just 18 months like a FEMA trailer? In addition, FEMA trailers were later found to have toxic substances such as formaldehyde and mold, creating an unhealthy living environment, not to mention toxic waste when the trailers were disposed of.

I designed the first Katrina Cottage, then used it to illustrate the principles of the cottages in a call for designs to the members of the New Urban Guild. Designs began to pour in almost immediately. Thus began several years of pro bono work by Guild members on the cottages and other aspects of Katrina recovery. Six weeks after the storm, the New Urban Guild members made up most of the architecture team at the Mississippi Renewal Forum, and filled slots on several planning teams as well, as nearly two hundred architects and planners gathered in a Biloxi, Mississippi casino to craft rebuilding plans. 

We built a number of prototype cottages and got Congress to fund a half-billion dollars worth of them for Mississippi and Louisiana. And the strong press coverage we got helped boost the Tiny House movement.

A 3-bedroom Katrina Cottage, image courtesy of smallhousebliss.com

The Meltdown occurred in October, 2008. Shortly thereafter, the New Urban Guild held a summit in Miami to put together a proposal that we hoped might jump-start the US housing market. Based in large part on the many lessons so many of us had learned from all those Katrina Cottage designs we did, we laid out the principles of what we called the SmartDwellings.

Steve Mouzon's Katrina Cottage VIII, featured in USA Today's Weekend Edition.

The idea behind SmartDwellings was to design houses that were so smart that they would satisfy the needs of a customer who thought they needed a house twice as large. In other words, if the customer would have needed a 2,400 square foot house built the normal way, they would be happier with a 1,200 square foot SmartDwelling. The SmartDwelling would cost more per square foot because of all those smart techniques, of course, but the bottom line should be houses that cost only 60% as much as the bigger, dumber design. And the SmartDwellings should cost only 40% as much to operate because of doing several highly sustainable things.

Katrina Cottages in Buena Vista, Colorado image courtesy of Kenny Craft. 

We wrapped up the summit with great optimism. And shortly thereafter, my design for the first SmartDwelling was published in the Wall Street Journal’s Green House of the Future story. It seemed like we might actually be on the brink of transforming another American industry: the mainstream housing industry. But because everyone was hanging on for dear life in 2009 and 2010, nobody wanted to try a new and unproven idea at a time when loans for new home construction were almost impossible to get. For a few years, it looked like the SmartDwelling dream would die the same death as the Katrina Cottages.

Steve Mouzon's Green House of the Future, as featured in the Wall Street Journal, 2009. 

The New Urbanists gathered at CNU in West Palm Beach in the late spring of 2012. One evening, I was visiting with two great friends, Eric Moser and Julia Sanford. All three of us are were board members of the Sky Institute, which supported a number of highly sustainable initiatives, including the SmartDwellings. I told them “if we do nothing, the SmartDwellings and other Sky Institute initiatives will remain nothing but a dream. We really must band together to found a design firm committed to implementing those ideals.” And so Studio Sky was born.

Eris Moser, Julia Starr Sanford, and Steve Mouzon of Studio Sky.

Just a month or so afterward, Eric called with exciting news: a Washington DC developer named Beth Clifford who had been researching Eric for some time had called, and wanted us to do an extreme makeover of a project in Belize. If you have been following Mahogany Bay Village for some time, before it became Mahogany Bay the previous developer had a completely different concept in mind for an ultra-modern, glass and cement, single-family home community. Beth Clifford came in with a more sustainable design that celebrates the local resources and labor, not to mention the traditional architecture, of Belize. And by adding a hotel component — along with event venue and amenities — the property would become a walkable mixed-use village.  In early July, we gathered at Old Town Fernandina on Amelia Island, Florida to do the first drawings for what would become Mahogany Bay Village.

Garden Cottages at Mahogany Bay Village, 2014.

Today, well over a hundred SmartDwellings stand on Mahogany Bay, finally fulfilling not only the dream of the Katrina Cottages, but also demonstrating SmartDwelling principles in real life for the first time anywhere. And Mahogany Bay isn’t just building exquisite SmartDwellings, but they’ve also finally proven to the world that you can manufacture architecture that is of exceptionally higher quality than site-built houses. Most of the work is done by a group of highly-skilled craftsmen in a factory on the mainland, and then assembled onsite . . . a practice that most considered impossible before they got it done at Mahogany Bay.

Ken Grissom, Director of Construction at Caribbean Homes & Exports in Belmopan, Belize. CHE is MBV's sister company and exclusive builder. 

Almost twelve years after the Gulf Coast descended into that horrible darkness of Katrina, an answer to all those questions we had has risen on the sands of Ambergris Caye. We look forward with great hope to the influence for good that the SmartDwellings of Mahogany Bay might have once they become more broadly known.

The Dream Suite at Mahogany Bay Village. 

A big thank you goes out to Steve Mouzon for authoring this article for Mahogany Bay Village. Studio Sky has done an exceptional job in mindfully choosing materials and design details to allow Mahogany Bay Village to embody the SmartDwelling initiative while embracing an identity of its own, rooted in its British Colonial past and consideration for our tropical climate. While the first designs at Mahogany Bay originated with the Katrina Cottage, a visit to Mahogany Bay Village today will illustrate these concepts implemented in everything from a 392 sq ft Garden Cottage hotel room to a 2,740 sq ft 5-bedroom family home; and from a 64 sq ft lunch shack to a 22,000 sq ft Great House event venue. Please look for an upcoming blog post featuring a video interview with Steve Mouzon.

Laura Balis