Helping Cordova make a comeback

By Katherine Harding, Office of Communications and Marketing



For many small towns, the grocery store is more than just a place to stop in and buy groceries. It is often the center of action and a gathering place for town members to hang out and see everyone. That was definitely the case for Cordova, Alabama. Everything changed when the grocery store, the town's main hub, was wiped out during the tornadoes of April 2011, along with the city hall, police station, the People's Bank and the old Tallulah Bankhead hotel, amounting to almost 90 percent of the town's civic infrastructure.

An EF-3 tornado and an EF-4 tornado produced winds up to 140 miles per hour April 25, 2011 that devastated the town of Cordova, a small town located in Walker County. The tornado outbreak of April 25 through 28 is among one of the most deadly in United States history.

Auburn University faculty members Paul Holley and Josh Emig lead the Master of Integrated Design and Construction Program in designing new buildings for Cordova that would reunite the town and replace more than just the destroyed buildings.

Holley is the Aderholdt Professor in the McWhorter School of Building Science, within Auburn's College of Architecture, Design and Construction and co-director of the Master of Integrated Design and Construction Program. Assistant professor Josh Emig is co-director of Auburn's Integrated Design and Construction Program, a collaboration between The School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture and the McWhorter School of Building Science.

The project received support from an Auburn University 2012 Competitive Outreach Scholarship Grant awarded to Emig and Holley. Their proposal, "Integrated Design and Construction Outreach: Cordova, Ala., Long Term Recovery," addressed the critical need served by important public buildings.

The work built on the previous projects of professors Cheryl Morgan and Jocelyn Zanzot, which began looking for a way to rebuild Cordova almost immediately following the storms. Auburn's Urban Studio worked as part of a Regional and Urban Design Assistance Team in the creation of the recovery plan.

Although the work seemed daunting, the professors and students involved were motivated to help the town rebuild. Beth Stukes, chair of the long term recovery committee in Cordova, believes, "the possibility of rebuilding for the future and creating an oasis of community is in reach with the efforts of the professors and students" working on this project.

Student Julian Vida explained, "Being a native of Alabama and having witnessed the destruction of the storms of April 27, 2011, this project is more important to me than any other design project I have been assigned in my education."

The studio was divided into four teams, each in charge of one building including a new city hall, fire station, grocery store and downtown developments, such as a library. Not only were they designing a building, but they were also working on alternative business plans for the companies involved.

Vida and his team worked on a design that would create a personal connection with the citizens of Cordova. About the designs, he said, "I hope I can provide the city and its citizens with a library design that they will embrace as their own and not provide a design that can be put anywhere."

Students brought innovation to their designs by looking at the most cost effective and efficient ways to construct buildings. Emig hoped the plans would find ways to redevelop small town downtown areas, which often are overlooked as strip malls and big box stores are less expensive to build and develop.

The details of the stage of planning done by the group included creating a vibrant downtown area with family-friendly parks for activities, as well as room for economic development. The citizens of Cordova have been involved from the beginning and offered valuable input during the creation of this recovery plan, noted professor Morgan.

The entire project was a collaborative effort with construction management, building design, architecture, community planning and landscape architecture. The students in this phase got to use cutting-edge digital tools of the industry. Emig said all this work brings the progressive thinking of big firms to small towns.

Stukes said, "The students professors Emig and Zanzot have brought to Cordova are an invaluable resource. Fresh consideration and an unbiased vision will prove to be the gate to our future."

An important message, according to Zanzot, is to not forget small towns like Cordova. While larger cities have gotten more media attention and funding, small towns still need help.

However, the work, while difficult, has been rewarding. Vida noted, "A good surprise has been the overall spirit, dedication and forward thinking goals of the citizens of Cordova. It has allowed us to move forward in our efforts knowing that we have the support of the city in our endeavors to provide them designs that will truly help their city."

Zanzot hopes to continue working with Cordova as long as is necessary. Recovery is a long-term process and the work will need to continue long beyond the summer.

For more information on the Master of Integrated Design and Construction program, go to

Last Updated: Sept. 17, 2012

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