The Chicken Coop

New Orleans' Lower Garden District is site of architecture students project

Posted by Liam Otten September 19, 2008

St. Thomas Seven Pepper Hot Sauce is one of the hottest sauces in New Orleans, grown and bottled at God's Vineyard Community Garden, 918 Felicity St., in the Lower Garden District. Yet like much of the city, this nonprofit farm was severely affected by Hurricane Katrina. Animals were lost; crops and structures were damaged; the volunteer staff (mostly children from the nearby St. Thomas Housing Project) scattered.

This spring, 10 senior architecture students from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, led by lecturer Derek Hoeferlin, have collaborated with garden founders Earl Antwine and Noel Jones to reestablish God's Vineyard as a productive urban farm. More specifically, in this age of gaudy "star-chitect" towers and international museums, these designers have turned their talents to an entirely more prosaic structure: The chicken coop.

"Half the garden is for growing hot peppers, but the other half is for raising animals," said Hoeferlin, a Tulane graduate who previously led three design studios focusing on the Lower Garden District and the Central City neighborhood. Indeed, before Hurricane Katrina, God's Vineyard fed more than 1,500 people each month, providing vegetables, eggs and poultry for community meals.

"I thought the chicken coop would be a terrific design/build project," said Hoeferlin, who once lived a block from God's Vineyard. "But for me, at the end of the day, the point is to help this great little farm get back on its feet."

Hoeferlin organized the studio through CITYbuild, a national consortium of design programs to which the Sam Fox School belongs. Students began the semester by sketching dozens of chicken coop designs, then formed teams to craft four detailed proposals. In February, they traveled to God's Vineyard for client presentations, lugging scale models through airport security. Antwine and Jones selected a proposal by seniors Alla Agafonov, Claudia Bode and Kathleen Johnson (though they also noted that a design by senior Aaron Williams would make an ideal goose coop).

Returning to St. Louis, the class set a $1,000 budget, funded by an anonymous donation, and began researching materials and construction methods.

"The idea was that we'd pre-fabricate the components, then drive down to install them," Hoeferlin said. "There's very little site preparation — just a few concrete boots anchoring the tilt-up frames."

The eight-foot-tall structure is composed of a dramatically peaked roosting area, large enough for humans to enter, and a similarly shaped, though smaller, nesting box that can be accessed separately for egg collection. Louvered side-panels, made of translucent plastic, are mounted on a galvanized steel framework. The roof as well as front and rear sliding doors are built from corrugated steel and painted bright red.

"It's a very simple structure, driven by the programmatic requirements of roosting and nesting," Hoeferlin said. "It's easily portable, and the materials are durable and won't be infested by termites. The louvered panels allow for cross-ventilation and also speak to vernacular architectural traditions."

On May 2, Hoeferlin's class returned to New Orleans to install the chicken coop (and Williams' goose coop).

2008 JP Morgan Chase Community Development Competition: The Good Work Network and the Franz Building

While visiting New Orleans, Hoeferlin's class agreed to tackle a second project after meeting with representatives of the Good Work Network, a nonprofit business incubator that provides training and support services to low-income and minority entrepreneurs.

"These are obviously two very different projects, but they're both very real," Hoeferlin said. "Despite what the national media tell us, things are gaining steam down the river. New Orleans is transitioning from a phase of recovery to one of rebuilding, and projects of different type and different scales need to be implemented simultaneously.

"That's what these design studios are all about," he said.

The Good Work Network had recently acquired the Franz Building, a 6,800-square-foot historic retail space in the Central City neighborhood. The group saw the structure as key to reviving the entire O.C. Haley corridor, an historically African-American shopping district, and planned to occupy half the building. The other half would house four businesses: a bakery, a consignment shop, a beauty salon and an arts cooperative.

"It's a gem of a building," Hoeferlin said. "It needs to be comprehensively renovated, but it's structurally very sound, with a commercial storefront and load-bearing brick walls. We don't build them like this anymore."

At the same time, Hoeferlin's studio was invited to participate in the 2008 JP Morgan Chase Community Development Competition. Designed to promote partnerships between universities and nonprofit groups, the competition would award a total of $50,000 seed money to three New Orleans projects.

Hoeferlin's class volunteered to craft the design portion of an interdisciplinary entry exploring redevelopment strategies for the Franz Building. Two graduate students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Department of Urban Studies & Planning who had previously partnered with the Good Work Network developed a corresponding business plan.

Though each architecture student created an individual proposal, the final submission was based on a scheme by senior John Kleinschmidt. Within the Good Work Network area, facing the street, would be a large flexible workspace that could be subdivided into small classrooms or opened up for large meetings and graduation ceremonies. A middle zone would house semi-public areas, including a reception desk, waiting room and staff lounge, while the back would contain private offices and an outdoor patio.

The project also would incorporate LEED-certified green building components as well as passive conservation strategies, including rainwater collection and retention, and operable doors and windows for cross-ventilation. Tall, angled ceilings would direct natural light deep into the space while also exposing a series of dramatic cypress trusses.

"Sustainability is a big part of this project, and of encouraging post-Katrina rebuilding in general," Hoeferlin said. "In a lot of ways, these old structures were sustainable in and of themselves. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel; we're just trying to complement and enhance existing features in unassuming ways."

In early April, the Good Work Network received a $40,000 grant from the Greater New Orleans Foundation. In addition, the Franz Building is currently a finalist for a National Trust for Historic Preservation Grant. On April 28, the WUSTL/MIT team was named a finalist in the Chase Competition. Hoeferlin’s class learned that their Chase competition proposal was the winning entry on May 8.

The first-place award of $25,000 will provide seed money for the Franz Building renovation, which is scheduled to begin later this year. When completed, the 6,800-square-foot structure will house storefront tenant spaces as well as a new headquarters, including offices and classrooms, for the Good Work Network. Last year, the group provided training and support services to more than 600 low-income and minority entrepreneurs.

"This project not only will help transform O.C. Haley into a vibrant arts, cultural and retail district, it will also make business incubation a permanent asset in the neighborhood," said Phyllis Cassidy, executive director of the Good Work Network.

The Chase competition, now in its 14th year, called for proposals that are both buildable and sustainable and that meet a prevalent community need in low- and moderate-income areas. Particular consideration was given to teams developing properties within the New Orleans Office of Recovery Management's 18 targeted redevelopment zones.

The WUSTL/MIT/Good Work Network proposal was chosen from a field of nine university/nonprofit teams, each focusing on a different neighborhood within New Orleans.

A second prize of $15,000 was awarded to Volunteers of America of Greater New Orleans, which worked with the New School in New York. A third prize of $10,000 was awarded to the Pontilly Development Association for a senior-living facility project developed with Tulane University.

Other competing schools were Harvard University, Loyola University New Orleans, DePaul University, the University of New Orleans, the University of Minnesota and Hunter College.

"Winning this competition was a remarkable way for these senior architecture students to cap their education at WUSTL," Hoeferlin said. "Not only did they put together a competition submission of professional level, but they also got to present in front of a multi-disciplined jury in New Orleans and even were interviewed on local news after winning.

"It was truly an interdisciplinary collaboration that married sophisticated architectural design with a carefully crafted business plan, all with close input from an informed client," Hoeferlin said. "I think this proves that the interdisciplinary and community-engaged model may be the credible trajectory for future architectural design studios."