Katrina Cottage Comes to Many Farms

Article taken from Navajo Times

It’s a quirk of human nature: A crisis seems to elicit a quick, concerted response, while a nagging, chronic problem lulls us into apathy. Fortunately, some solutions that work for a crisis can also be applied to ongoing problems.

Take the Katrina Cottage, for instance. Designed to replace the thousands of houses lost along the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina, could these inexpensive, sturdy little homes also provide shelter for the thousands of Navajo elders currently crowding in with family members or subsisting in dilapidated shacks? Many Farms High School construction teacher Tom Johnson thinks so.

Johnson originally discovered the Katrina Cottage when a fellow faculty member directed him to it as a learning tool for his construction students. He’d been searching for years for the perfect short-term project for his students, and had them build a covered, outdoor construction area just for that purpose. Unlike a shed – their usual project up until this school year – the cottage would involve plumbing and electricity, essential skills for budding contractors. But when Johnson started looking at plans for Katrina Cottages, he saw something more.

An Anglo married to a Navajo, Johnson had been distressed since he moved to Many Farms in 1992 by the dearth of decent housing. The Katrina Cottage is tiny – 308 square feet – but cleverly designed so that it doesn’t feel cramped. For a single elder or a young couple without a lot of stuff, the cottage provides an affordable, sturdy, attractive living space. Plus, you can build it in one location, slide it onto a flatbed and haul it anywhere. “You look at some of the modular housing they’re selling in Gallup and it’s just junk,” Johnson said. “People go into major debt for those houses and by the time they’re paid off, they’re falling apart.”

Johnson, who obtained a Carl Perkins grant to build the first Katrina Cottage at Many Farms this school year, said his students can build one for around $10,000. They plan to sell it at a slight markup, maybe $13,000, and put the money into materials for the next one. “It’s way cheaper than you could get it for off the reservation, because we’re not paying labor costs,” Johnson explained.

Of course, Johnson realizes $13,000 is still more than most Navajos can afford all at once. He’s been pitching the cottage to Many Farms and surrounding chapters, and hopes one of the chapters will buy it and allow a needy person to make payments on it over time. When it’s paid off, the chapter can order another. So far he doesn’t have any commitments, but “there’s been a lot of interest.”

Because the cottage is so small, it’s easy to heat and light, and the Many Farms model includes a “little bitty wood-burning stove,” according to Johnson. “We’re thinking of developing a photovoltaic (solar) package for it,” Johnson said, “but that would add $5,000 to the cost.”

Of course, the ultimate goal is to turn out competent tradesmen. Johnson’s students last year logged some of the highest test scores in the state, and he thinks now that they’ve built a whole house from scratch, they’ll perform even better.  “In the past, we’ve learned plumbing and wiring from building models,” he said. “It’s a whole other thing to see how everything comes together. This is the real deal.”

Levi Tan, a 16-year-old junior, said there’s a different feeling to building a home than a shed – a sense of pride, perhaps. “It’s not just walls and a roof,” he said. “It’s a real nice house that someone’s going to live in.”

The cottage has a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen/living room, along with an eight-foot-deep front porch that serves as additional living space in good weather. And unlike a square metal trailer, it’s incredibly cute. The New Urbanist group, the architectural think tank that designed the Katrina Cottage, was after “a dignified alternative to a FEMA trailer,” according to the Katrina Cottage’s official home page, www.katrinacottages.com.

It’s very low maintenance, with a steel roof and fiber-cement siding that stands up to strong winds. Since Johnson’s expertise is in cabinetry, the Many Farms version includes some nice little touches that aren’t in the plan, like tongue-and-groove soffits (the underside covering of roof eaves) and clever storage nooks.

Chinle High School’s career and technical education department is also building a Katrina Cottage, so Central Agency could get two a year – that’s 20 in the next 10 years, which could at least make a dent in its housing shortage for singles and couples. Plus, reminded Johnson, “all these kids know how to build this now. They could build one for their grandparents if they wanted.”

Information on the Katrina Cottage, including plans, can be found at www.katrinacottages.com. According to Johnson, plans are also available at Lowe’s.