The people of Houston have become intimately familiar with the devastation that natural disasters can wreak on lives and homes.
In early 2021, as a winter storm pummeled the state of Texas, more than one million people in Harris County, which includes Houston, either lacked water or had to boil it. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey flooded much of Houston—leaving over half a million people without power and tens of thousands without shelter.
One architecture student’s award-winning design imagines a structure that can help Houstonians weather future crises. Rae Atkinson, a second-year master of architecture student at Rice University, designed a self-help hub for Freedmen’s Town—a neighborhood founded and built by formerly enslaved people.
This year, for its annual Gulf Coast Green conference on sustainable building solutions, the American Institute of Architects Houston chapter’s student design competition solicited self-help hub designs for Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy (HFTC), a nonprofit that protects and preserves the history of the neighborhood. Atkinson’s project won first place.
“It’s a space for residents to go for resources in times of emergencies, especially after natural disasters with power outages or plumbing failures,” Atkinson says of her concept.
Fresh take on the shotgun house
To come up with her forward-thinking design, Atkinson first looked to the past of Freedmen’s Town, which once prominently featured shotgun houses. “So it seemed like the best form to pay homage to the history of the neighborhood,” Atkinson says. Long and narrow, a shotgun house is typically one room wide, with its rooms situated directly behind one another.
That nod to the community’s history impressed Zion Escobar, a competition juror and the executive director of HFTC. “The classic shotgun design embodies the perseverance and self-sufficiency of the founders of Freedmen’s Town,” Escobar says.
There was also a pragmatic reason for the shotgun layout: The proposed site is sandwiched between two apartment buildings, with a parking lot directly behind it.
Atkinson’s concept references the shotgun typology but also updates it. Rather than a traditional one-story structure, her design has two levels. She elevates the shotgun-like exterior to the second floor, where there are storage spaces for emergency resources, such as flashlights, batteries, and generators. Meanwhile, the ground floor consists mostly of an open-air area that can serve as a community gathering space. The second floor has a kitchenette; the first has a fridge and pantry.
“Rae’s design is perfect because it’s so versatile. It can provide resources on a regular basis and in times of crisis, and it can also be a place to hang out on the weekend,” Escobar says.
Atkinson thought about the practical needs that can take on sudden urgency in crises: The ground floor has three restrooms. To keep the toilets flushing even during natural disasters, the structure has a rainwater collection system. Fitted with showers, the ADA-accessible restrooms each have enough space to fit an entire family, so they can bathe and dress in privacy.
Atkinson learned the importance of restroom access firsthand during this year’s winter storm. “Like many Houstonians, I did not have adequate plumbing in my house for several weeks afterward,” she says.
To keep the power running, the hub includes rooftop solar panels. That meant Atkinson had to flatten the shotgun’s traditional gable roof. Yet she kept the roof’s façade pitched to maintain the shotgun look from the front.
The flat roof led Atkinson to think of a second use for the solar panels. Tents can be mounted to her panels’ frames—quickly creating emergency housing.
“She was innovative in having those solar panels be adaptable as emergency shelters with privacy barriers to safely house families on the rooftop. That was very thoughtful,” Escobar says.
The design’s provisions for power and water also reference the neighborhood’s past, when wells predated modern-day infrastructure, Escobar finds: “This brings that stability and self-sustainability back to the community,” she says. “And it creates a model for people to consider for their own homes.”
For now, Atkinson’s design remains a concept. But it’s one that Escobar hopes will inform a similar structure that HFTC wants to build in the future.