Engineering at Nebraska, Spring 2007
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Rebuilding New Orleans

Rebuilding New Orleans
Right to Left: Professor George Morcous, Student Mike Wiesniewski, Student Jesse Wilke, Professor James Goedert, Professor Yong K. Cho, Professor Avery Schwer, Student Brandon Krelling, Professor Bill Holmes
Photo by Amy Hensley

Brandon Kreiling admits that as a Midwesterner, he initially found it hard to comprehend why the city of New Orleans wanted to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Now that he’s visited The Big Easy three times and witnessed the devastation Katrina left behind, he understands.

Kreiling, a graduate assistant, and 11 other faculty and students in the Department of Construction Systems have spent the past year designing floor plans and writing construction manuals that builders will use to build or renovate homes in New Orleans’ Esplanade Ridge neighborhood.

In early 2006 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the University of Nebraska–Lincoln a $293,660 grant to participate in the Universities Rebuilding America Partnership. The program is a partnership between the Charles W. Durham School of Architectural Engineering & Construction, HUD and the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans. Fifteen other schools also are participating.


In the PKI Building Information Modeling Lab, the team discusses design options.

Computer renderings of finished homes
Computer renderings of finished homes.

Kreiling, a 2000 graduate, was working for HearthStone Homes in Omaha when Professor James Goedert recruited him for the project. Kreiling said his first trip to New Orleans confirmed that returning to school was the right decision. Hearing New Orleanians’ stories also convinced him it was necessary to rebuild the once-majestic city.

“It brings a sense of feeling that you are doing something good for those people,” Kreiling said.

Before Katrina, Esplanade Ridge was a historic district with a diverse mix of picturesque mansions and modest shotgun homes. While suburban reconstruction has taken off, restoration of this midtown neighborhood has lagged behind.

HUD has required UNL to develop plans for three types of restoration: new construction; reconstruction, in which an existing home is torn down and rebuilt according to its original floor plan; and rehabilitation, which is extensive remodeling in homes that are damaged but salvageable.

Goedert is the lead principal investigator. He selected Bill Holmes to oversee new construction, Avery Schwer to oversee reconstruction and Stuart Bernstein to oversee rehabilitation. Kreiling and Mike Wisniewski are the graduate and undergraduate assistants who have been involved since the beginning.

Goedert said the project was a natural fit for the faculty’s skills.

“It has been a real practice-oriented project, and our staff includes a lot of practitioners,” he said.

Since 70 percent of New Orleans is beneath sea level, designing homes that could withstand floodwaters and high winds was the foremost priority.

Kreiling learned that homes in low-lying areas are built on piers because if a neighborhood floods, the force of the current would take down a solid foundation wall.

The team also learned how to strap a house from roof to foundation. In Nebraska, Kreiling said, that’s usually done only for commercial construction but it’s necessary in New Orleans because a low-sloping roof acts like an airplane wing.

“When the wind comes up it can get sucked right off,” he said.

Kreiling said the team has chosen materials that are water-resistant or easy to clean, like concrete or wainscoting, so the walls aren’t as susceptible to molding if the home floods.

Learning how to hurricane-proof a home has been “a great learning experience for someone who has lived in Nebraska their whole life,” said Kreiling, who grew up in Gering.

Through Universities Rebuilding America and related programs, thousands of volunteers—most of whom are unfamiliar with New Orleans architecture—have been designing floor plans. Kreiling said some designs have been lampooned as “Architects Gone Wild” because they’re infeasible for hurricane-prone areas or don’t fit the city’s aesthetic.

“They’re alienating people in New Orleans because they’re trying to impose the design standards of their region,” he said.

Holmes said the UNL team wanted to respect the city’s architectural traditions. That meant adding details such as oversized front porches and ornate finials.

Size and scale was another consideration. Homes in New Orleans are tiny in comparison to homes in Nebraska, Kreiling said. The lots are narrow—he measured one that was only 14’ wide—but up to 100’ deep.

Goedert said while he wanted the floor plans to reflect the city’s heritage, he was adamant that UNL wouldn’t design any shotgun homes.

“Most people are uncomfortable walking through a bedroom and a bathroom to get to a kitchen,”

Throughout the design process, team members have consulted with local builders and residents. Students in CNST 1120: Construction Communications also developed working drawings as part of a class project, and the design team has incorporated some of those ideas.

In all, the team has made 10 designs, each with two possible adaptations, for a total of 20 designs from which a builder could choose. The designs range from a 369 square-foot micro dwelling to a 1,364 squarefoot home. Holmes said the homes would cost $85 to $140 per square foot, which research indicated was affordable for most residents.

Providence Community Housing in New Orleans has helped UNL get permission to enter properties in Esplanade Ridge. Director of Communications Rich Arnold said, “They (UNL) clearly did a lot of research on the practicalities of their designs for this particular area. They really listened to the experts.”

Goedert said he didn’t know how soon builders would start using UNL’s designs. Seventy-five percent of the drawings are complete and awaiting approval from local builders. Seven of the 10 reconstruction projects also are on hold until the team can access the appropriate sites.

“It’s so difficult to describe the complexity of the political situation down there,” Goedert said. “Even though 80 percent of the homes in New Orleans were damaged it’s hard to find a new house anywhere.”

Arnold said many builders are postponing work until the Federal Emergency Management Agency releases the Unified New Orleans Plan, which will specify the order in which neighborhoods will receive aid to rebuild.

The high costs of insurance and construction materials also are “major detriments to recovery right now,” Arnold said.

According to a Jan. 16 New Orleans Times-Picayune article, the Louisiana Housing Finance Agency has awarded $121.6 million in tax credits for affordable homes in the most damaged areas. Even with the tax credits, however, residents have been priced out of the housing market because of insurance costs, which have risen 200 to 600 percent since Hurricane Katrina.

Arnold said he is impressed by UNL’s commitment in spite of the setbacks.

“They’ve probably been more helpful to us than we’ve been to them,” he said.

Goedert said getting selected for Universities Rebuilding America was a major coup for the department, which has only recently made research a focus, in addition to teaching and service.

“This has gotten a lot of faculty who didn’t think they were researchers involved in research,” he said.