Marianne Cusato

BA '97
Founder, Cusato Cottages, LLC

A Cottage Industry

After Hurricane Katrina, architect Marianne Cusato ’97 was invited to the Gulf Coast by her mentor Andres Duany to be part of a group of architects looking at how houses fit into the community, and how communities fit together to form coastlines.

“We were broken up into teams, and the challenge was to come up with a dignified alternative to the FEMA trailer,” says Cusato.

Cusato designed the first Katrina Cottage, conceived as a small, permanent home that would provide affordable housing for displaced residents and emergency workers.

Today Cusato’s Katrina Cottages (cusatocottages.com), which range from 308 to 1,807 square feet, are sold nationwide by Lowe’s. The affordable, compact and easy-to-build plans have been featured in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, CNN and other major news outlets.

In 2006, her 308 square-feet Katrina Cottage won the Smithsonian Institute’s Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum’s “People’s Design Award.”  In June 2006, Congress appropriated $400 million for an alternative emergency housing program, based on the idea of the Katrina Cottage.

“This is a smart way of building,” she says. “There’s a use beyond disasters.”

The cottages were designed at the peak of the housing bubble, she says, “When homes were getting bigger, overblown and overstuffed. The cottages represent a simplicity that is refreshing.”

In 2005, she notes, we were at the height of the housing bubble, with 2 million houses going up every year. This year, the figure is 300,000. Still, she says, this is the most optimistic time for housing in 50 years.

“We never should have been building two million houses a year. Why don’t we design for what we want, not for what the next owner might want? Instead of adding a little patch of stucco or stone, why not build a front porch you can actually use? Austerity isn’t ugly— it’s putting your money where it matters. To make a difference in the global economy, we need to put our personal economies in order. If we all do a little bit, it will make a big difference.”

Ranked the No. 4 most influential person in the home building industry in Builder magazine’s annual “Power on 50” list, Cusato and her design principles are changing the landscape of the housing industry.

“Ideas like these will make our country stronger,” she adds. “There’s nothing more sustainable than a building you want to take care of.”

Cusato is also the author of two books: Get Your House Right, Architectural Elements to Use and Avoid, with Ben Pentreath, Richard Sammons and Leon Krier, foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales (January 2008, Sterling Publishing) and The Value of Design (February 2008, James Hardie).

“If the Great Recession taught us anything, it is that the formulas we use to define wealth and value are not set in stone. As awful as the last couple of years have been, they present an opportunity to reflect and press reset on a system that has not worked. Much of what went wrong centered around my profession, the home building industry. My hope is that in working together for the common good, we can learn from where things went wrong to build a better tomorrow.”

Cusato has also been honored with the American Society of Interior Designers “2007 ASID Design for Humanity Award” and the American Institute of Building Designers (AIBD) Florida Society “2007 Honor Award of Excellence.”