In 2005, Hurricane Katrina and failed levees devastated parts of New Orleans and killed more than 1,800 people in Louisiana and Mississippi. Now, nine years later, the city of New Orleans is becoming a leader in green building and design, having partnered with nonprofits, businesses and government agencies to make lemonade out of lemons.
Affordable, green homes are being built for New Orleans communities in need, and homeowners who want sustainable, healthy homes are finding it easier to build them. Some New Orleans-based architectural, planning, engineering and construction firms are now leaders in green building and water-related disaster recovery. And solar companies are gaining a larger voice in Louisiana and the South, while the energy companies that used to have the loudest voices don’t any longer, says Carlos Garcia, an associate AIA and designer at New Orleans-based John C. Williams Architects.
John C. Williams Architects is one of a number of design firms working with the Make It Right Foundation (a nonprofit organization founded by Brad Pitt in 2007) to build 150 affordable, green homes in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward using the Cradle to Cradle® design principles of architect William McDonough. To date, more than 100 LEED-Platinum certified homes have been built. Williams Architects’ role is to produce construction documents for each house and oversee the construction process. They also managed the LEED for Homes certification process for the initial houses, and helped all of the first thirteen houses achieve a LEED Platinum rating.
According to Garcia, rebuilding after Katrina was the first opportunity for the city of New Orleans to get real experience in the components of green building and design, and some of the sustainable concepts were new to local regulatory agencies. However, the thinking was that these homes needed to get rebuilt period, so why not do it in the most responsible way. From a design standpoint, Katrina was a blessing and a curse, Garcia says. “On the downside, it left very little for us to build toward,” Garcia says. On the upside, “Design teaches you to respect your context. When you’re left without one, it’s very freeing.” They needed to develop a language in which to design, and they did.
One recent success story is the 2014 Greenbuild LivingHome, (designed by LivingHomes) a net-zero electricity demonstration home that was built to LEED v4 Platinum standards for Make It Right — shown here.
The home was built in modules and assembled at Greenbuild 2014, an international conference and expo, held in New Orleans in October, Garcia explains. After the conference, the home will be permanently placed in the Lower 9th Ward, ready for a family to move in. People involved in the rebuilding effort are surprised and pleased by the response from the neighborhoods. “The neighborhood fabric that existed before Katrina is very much back,” Garcia says “and we’ve been able to maintain a lot of the kitschy elements that make New Orleans culturally relevant.”
According to the GreenBuild/Living Home sponsors, “given the challenges facing the Lower 9th Ward, the home also had to be able to withstand some of the worst conditions nature can deliver. To that end, everything from framing to roofing is optimized to keep moisture out. That includes arming windows with hurricane-resistant screen systems (an affordable alternative to pricey hurricane-ready windows), cement lap siding that sheds water, and—in case any water does get in—antimicrobial, anti-mildew drywall that can actually capture VOCs brought into the home.”
Regarding the process of working with the city to get green homes approved, Garcia says that, as with any recovery, there have been speed bumps. However, now that green building is less of a revolutionary concept, pushback regarding design approval stems more from pride in New Orleans being such a culturally dense area and concern for maintaining the city’s unique aesthetic.
Green building lessons learned in New Orleans include:
Be realistic. The concept of green building and design includes a number of lofty ideals, and there are a variety of different organizations involved. Be realistic when setting goals and making decisions.
Be aware of historical context. For properties located in historic districts, work with the appropriate agency before selecting a design, and seek any necessary variances before the design is complete.
Balance priorities. Weigh budgetary concerns, regulatory restrictions, codes and safety issues, and then find a way to blend these into a contextually appropriate, responsible design.
Hire professionals. Hire professionals familiar with local regulations.
Learn from experience. Manufacturers can be a good resource and may have some experience that can benefit the community and help local companies update their green products and skills.
Be proactive. Katrina called attention to a glaring problem in New Orleans, Garcia says. Be proactive and design for damage control, especially in areas susceptible to nature.
Work together. To date, New Orleans’ rebuilding success is less about individual designs and more about the cohesiveness of the overall effort of contractors, designers, architects and manufacturers working together.