Jacobs Fellow- Ben Gauslin

Mr. Gauslin devoted one full year working with housing authorities in New Orleans on affordable housing and neighborhood development efforts in low-income neighborhoods. A graduate of Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies, Mr. Gauslin worked alongside housing authorities on building and site inspections, developing preliminary designs and budgets for housing and commercial revitalization projects and the development of a pattern book for housing rehabilitation in the New Orleans East neighborhoods.

 

City as an organic, urban artifact

 Excerpts from Jacobs Fellow, Ben Gauslin's final report

 

Photos by Ben Gauslin

One neighbor "...approached the Design Studio at NENA seeking assistance with building a new house on her lot, located above St. Claude Avenue. The entire area is filled with blocks taken over by weeds, dotted by the occasional house in someone else's yard; concrete slabs imprinted with what used to be walls;  and staircases leading to nowhere. It is strangely peaceful, yet a sobering reminder of what the levee breach at the Industrial Canal did to the Lower Ninth Ward. 

Because [this resident] had no financial resources, no architectural services were provided. She would have to work with a case manager first in obtaining the money required to build a new home.  

Visiting this property raises an interesting question, which I don't have a good answer to: what is our role as architects and planners when a homeowner wants to move back to their previous neighborhood, given that there really isn't a neighborhood there anymore? It is not our place to tell people they can't return to their homes, but it is difficult to accept that they wish to live in the middle of what has now become a wild and overgrown frontier." 

 

 


Examples of the site plans from Gauslin's report

Photo by Ben Gauslin

Photo by Ben Gauslin

This resident's story is one of the most successful within Gauslin's Fellowship:  

"[This resident] is no longer living in a FEMA trailer on her property and her new home is currently under construction. Ms. __ was one of the Design Studio's first clients and worked initially with volunteer architecture students before their return to school. Because of this, it took a few meetings to gain her trust, but once that was established, it as possible to work the students' designs into a set of construction documents that could be submitted to the City for a building permit and to contractors for bidding.  

The turnover rate of individuals assisting homeowners is a very real issue with respect to gaining the trust of the community's residents. On the one hand, there is a need for architectural services within the community, and there are few architects providing these services, so any help is welcome. Yet, on the other hand, the experience of these individuals is often lacking when it comes to building construction and industry standards, as these often contribute to an architect's education after they graduate and enter the workforce. In [this] case, the initial student design did not comply with building codes and zoning regulations, yet this design is what she had approved. Having to show her revised plans for a smaller house than she thought she would be building was not a quick and easy task, but it had to be done. 

Soon after the approved drawings for her house were submitted to the City for a building permit, an issue of Gambit Weekly (New Orleans' free weekly alternative newspaper) came out with a cover story titled, "Stuck on Stuck," about the shortcomings of the Louisiana Recovery Authority's Road Home Small Rental Property Program. [This resident] was featured extensively in this story about how there hasn't been a single dollar released to any of the homeowners who qualify for the program as landlords. 

The story also briefly mentions the construction of her new home, yet it does not detail the circumstances surrounding it. [The resident's] contractor is a family member and is not licensed. However, it is evident from the work that he has done to date that he has much construction experience and knows what he is doing, which is rare in the Lower Ninth Ward.  

One of the aims of the Design Studio at NENA is to provide education about the construction process and the need to work with licensed contractors every step of the way, since unlicensed contractors have caused so much hardship for residents trying to rebuild over the last two years. Yet, here we have a conundrum. Professionally, an architect's right to practice is placed on the line in working with an unlicensed general contractor. And to not work with the contractor would betray the trust invested in the architect by a resident of the community. And since a media spotlight has been shown on the project once, the project may very well surface to the public eye later. 

The resolution of this conundrum is quite simple and is at the heart of New Orleans' culture: adopt a laissez-faire position and look the other way.