Credit: Courtesy Mike Stoneking

For someone who’s experienced a serious natural disaster, an 8-by-12-foot shed can be a lifeline to normalcy. Just ask the residents of Pearlington, Miss. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, a nonprofit called Building Goodness Foundation (BGF) traveled to the Gulf Coast town to help, and noticed that its flood-stricken residents had nowhere to store the few possessions they’d been able to salvage. The Charlottesville, Va.–based organization, mostly made up of local builders and architects, designed a simple shed and began building dozens of them—about 140, in total. Some residents temporarily lived in the structures, while others used them to shelter their things. “It gave people a real shining star of hope after such a devastating event,” says Mississippi local county supervisor Rocky Pullman. BGF chose not to make the design proprietary, which allowed other organizations to come to Pearlington and build more sheds using its basic model. Today, the sheds are still used for storage, albeit of a less emergency nature. “They’re still there, but now they’re painted to match the new houses the residents built,” says Charlottesville architect Mike Stoneking, AIA, BGF’s vice president and a board member.

The Pearlington sheds perfectly exemplify the power of architecture to improve a post-disaster situation. They’re not glamorous or high-design, just solid, easy-to-construct buildings that fill a very specific need. And they demonstrate the crucial role design can play in the reordering of lives scattered by events beyond their control.

hands-on help

Many disaster recovery experts are beginning to see what architects have long known: Good design is never more important than in an emergency or post-emergency situation. “Design matters, and when you’re designing a small space it really matters,” says Dana Bres, a research engineer at HUD who worked on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s post-Katrina Alternative Housing Pilot Program. And architect Sergio Palleroni, a Portland State University professor and a senior fellow at the school’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, observes that design can unite strangers thrown together by circumstance. He and his wife and partner, architect Margarette Leite, are finishing up the design phase of a Houston community center for families who were permanently displaced from different parts of New Orleans by Katrina. “It serves the need for activities for kids after school, and for cultural events and gatherings that will keep the community cohesive,” he says. “It addresses a typical problem, which is, how do you set up strategies for survival that also create community?” (Click here for more on Palleroni and Leite.)