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Marianne Cusato: Making a Difference

Thomas Edison: Light Bulb.

Alexander Graham Bell: Telephone.

Marianne Cusato: Katrina Cottage.

Could it be possible that a century from now, people will link the 33-year-old Cusato with her 300-square-foot piece of perfection as much as they match Bell and Edison with their revolutionary inventions?

Whether the quaint structure named after a horrific hurricane remains in the 21st century's lexicon or not, it is hard to imagine any single element of the built environment having as much of an overnight impact as the Katrina Cottage.

The Katrina Cottage innovation that has caught fire with new urbanist iconoclasts, turned the heads of builders and catapulted a designer onto the pages of the New York Times, the air waves of television and the bookstores with not one, but two dynamic books pending release.

Katrina Cottage designer Marianne Cusato seeks to elevate the standards
of building houses through instruction and by example.

"Growing up in Alaska, the built environment is quite grim," Cusato said. "Anchorage didn't start booming until the `60s, and the result is glass and concrete buildings and lots of strip malls. The good oil economy came in those years when design was at its worst -- nationally and internationally."

The Notre Dame School of Architecture graduate said Alaska's stunning natural beauty taught her about a sense of place.

"I remember driving through sprawl in Anchorage and telling my parents 'I want to be an architect, but I don't want to work at a firm that designs strip malls.' I was in seventh grade, but I somehow knew it was wrong," she recalled.

Fast forward to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in late 2005 and Cusato was working with Andres Duany and others to create a FEMA trailer alternative that would be safe, affordable, able to built quickly and also be attractive and sustainable.

The quaint living spaces -- both beautiful with little porches and high roofs and practical by meeting hurricane wind standards and easily elevated above the flood plain -- start at 308 square feet and can be delivered for a cost of about $70,000.

Katrina Cottage kits coming in sizes up to 1,800 square feet are being distributed by the giant retailer Lowe's and have earned The Smithsonian Institute's National Design Museum's People's Design Award.

The notoriety has been fast and furious for Cusato who, with no prompting, started drawing designs and floor plans back in the third grade. She recalled that she knew the value of a traditional town before she had the words to describe it.

Now that her sustainable and flexible answer to the horrid FEMA trailer has given her a national forum, Cusato is on a mission to equip the everyday person with the right words to describe -- or better yet -- demand proper scale and built environment.

"Get Your House Right: Architectural Elements to Use & Avoid" (written with Ben Pentreath Leon Krier and Richard Sammons for Sterling Publishing) is her antidote to the McMansion.

"We know the language -- eaves, soffits, etc. . but we've lost the grammar," she said of architecture. "You see a modern structure, you feel something isn't just right but you can't put your finger on it. "We show the common mistakes made with window sizes, arches, double height entrances."

Cusato also is collaborating on a book with the James Hardie Siding Company tentatively titled "The Value of Design and its Impact on our Homes and Communities."

"The book talks about that garage-dominated front of the house . it approaches everything from houses with too many gables to not using materials like wallpaper. We talk about why it's happened so you can avoid it happening," she said. "A builder keeps building these boring boxes so they try to differentiate and mix in stone, arch windows, phony details. Builders need to learn to look at the street as larger composition and put in fewer details but do them really well."

Cusato, for the record, is a designer, not an architect. "I haven't sat for the exam, but I'm so happy doing what I'm doing as a designer," she said. The New York-based (her Greenwich Village apartment is only 300 square feet, the Katrina Cottage felt like home, not a demonstration kit) Cusato is thrilled that her Gulf Coast cottage has sparked a nationwide discussion.

"The cottage opened the dialogue for New Urbanism, for building better places -- it got people's attention," she said. "The message is pretty basic: Build very nice places, make them realistic and easy to execute and live in."

New urbanism, for the record, is very appealing to Cusato, but she doesn't like the way some NUers approach it like a crusade. She doesn't like urbanism dictated by a list created by a zealous NU convert.

"People don't want to be part of a movement, they just want to live in a great place," she said. "We need to strip the labels away and say, 'How long do you want to sit in the car -- 20-minute commute or two-hour commute? How much do you want to spend on air conditioning and energy? Do you want to really live in your house or do you want to have a bunch of rooms you hardly ever use? Do you want to be able to walk down the street to get a newspaper or visit a store, or do you always want to need a car?'"

"The word 'utopia' needs to be purged from our vocabulary; you can't go around sounding like people who have an agenda," Cusato continued. "We're offering the greenest, most economically sound and highest quality of life way to build. That is not a niche, that's at the heart of day-to-day existence of everybody in society."

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Wright has written for a living for 25 years, with nearly 5,000 published articles. He lives in historic Little Havana and is very active in Miami's urban issues. He and his wife of 20 years also are involved in making new and old towns more accessible for people with disabilities.