Making It Right

Weighing benefits of sustainable building

BRYAN TARNOWSKI PHOTOGRAPH

What Gloria Mae Guy enjoys most about the home she moved into late in 2009 is, well, everything. In August 2005, waters that crashed through an Industrial Canal floodwall in the wake of Hurricane Katrina all but destroyed the house she had lived in for 30 years. Guy and a neighbor escaped the water by making their way to a rooftop. “We held on to that roof for 10 hours before we got rescued,” she says.

Guy faced a tough road in attempting to return to her Lower 9th Ward neighborhood. For years after her husband died in 1983, she worked two jobs to support her family, but replacing her wrecked home was just too much of a stretch

Help came from the Make It Right Foundation, which built and helped residents buy new homes in the neighborhood. Guy now owns a raised, two-story house with high ceilings, a host of energy-efficient features that keep her utility bills low and plenty of space for her grandchildren. “I’m very happy to be home,” she says.

Though residents are glad to be back, no one can say the old neighborhood looks the same. Homes built by Make It Right, the nonprofit organization founded in 2007 by actor Brad Pitt to house displaced Lower 9th Ward residents, bear little resemblance to the structures they replaced.

Raised well off the ground, built of resilient, weather-resistant materials, sporting oddly angled roofs with solar panels and innovative rainwater collection systems, the brightly painted houses reflect some of the most forward-looking construction technology in the world – and that’s by design.

The goal of Make It Right is to develop quality houses that are built entirely of renewable, recyclable materials and consume less energy than they generate. In the lingo of sustainable construction they are known as “high-performance” buildings.

“This place, which was seen as the least likely neighborhood to come back, now is becoming the foremost high-performance neighborhood in the country,” Pitt said in early March, a day before hosting a fundraiser for Make It Right in New Orleans.

“It’s a whole new paradigm, and it’s just the beginning,” he said. “I think when we look back in 50 years, we’ll know that a stake was planted, right here, that started something important.”

He could be right. While the idea of sustainable construction is not new, nor was it born in New Orleans, the local post-Katrina environment created a nearly ideal proving ground for the concept. Few other single-family residential projects have set a sustainability target as high, or on such a scale, as Make It Right, which recently passed the halfway point in its goal of building 150 homes in the Lower 9th Ward.

From the beginning, Pitt aimed to develop homes that meet the strictest standards of the U.S. Green Building Council, which 12 years ago introduced the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system. The LEED certification system provides verification that a building was built to foster human and environmental health and preserve renewable resources.

Tom Darden, the executive director of Make It Right, says that in addition to sustainability, the foundation’s goal was accessibility. “Our thought was that we’re going to build the best house we can possibly build and figure out how to make it affordable,” he says.

A commonly held belief about complying with sustainability standards is that it drives up construction costs. Even though operational costs are lower because of the increased energy efficiency of such buildings, many builders and developers balk at the perceived higher price of going green.

Darden says Make It Right has begun to win the war on cost. He says that initial design expenses and a steep learning curve for everyone from architects to vendors did push the foundation’s construction prices well above conventional building costs in the early stages.

However, as the design and construction team gained experience, they learned how to build sustainable homes faster and less expensively.
Make It Right is now building homes for around $130 per square foot, including permitting and engineering costs, Darden says. In 2010, the average price for a new single-family home in New Orleans was $144 per square foot, according to a University of New Orleans market assessment.

Some construction industry analysts confirm that the gap between conventional and sustainable building costs is closing. In his book Greening Our Built World, (Island Press, 2010), sustainable building advocate Gregory Kats presents results of a two-year study that shows a structure built to the Green Building Council’s highest standard – known as LEED Platinum – costs up to 2 percent more than a conventional equivalent. An owner typically recoups that difference within six years through reduced energy and water-use costs, Kats found.

Anisa Baldwin Metzger, a Green Building Council program manager who for a time worked for the council in New Orleans, says the Lower 9th Ward project is helping to bring healthier, more environmentally supportive building methods into the construction mainstream.

Metzger says that as it has grown into one of the largest concentrations of LEED-certified affordable housing in the world, the local Make It Right project also has been instrumental in growing a work force capable of sustainable construction.

As an example, she says, when the foundation first began looking for qualified solar installers for the project, they found only two. “Within a few years, they were working with 13 different companies,” she says.

Today, dozens of contractors are at work not only for Make It Right, but also on local sustainable construction projects ranging from schools, homes, apartments and medical centers to retail and office spaces.

As the local inventory of projects, builders and suppliers approaches a critical mass, Pitt’s vision of Make It Right becoming a global model for affordable, renewable construction begins to seem more feasible. As he puts it: “This is not just about building homes, it’s about changing the way we think.”

Quick build: a sustainable house kit

The growing inventory of local contractors in the sustainable construction field includes both new names and industry stalwarts. Recently, four companies showed off a collaborative project that they say breaks new ground.

A model home they recently completed in Lakeview took shape through a design competition that challenged architects to envision a sustainable, hurricane-resistant prototype that could be used in filling mass housing needs in the event of disaster.

Built through a collaboration of steel structural insulation company Oceansafe, Woodward Design+Build, C&G Construction and the Regen engineering group, the home is the winning design of Tulane University architects Judith Kinnard and Tiffany Lin. Made to withstand hurricane force winds and imbued with energy efficient features, it is designed for mass production – the components of the home could be factory-produced, packaged into a “kit,” shipped to a location and assembled on site.

Kinnard says one of the most unusual features of the two-bedroom home is its dual roofs. “One roof is all about gathering water,” she says, referring to the inward tilt of its surface for collection of rainwater. The other roof is to be outfitted with solar panels.

Also unusual is a thermal-mass wall, which is a concrete-block wall filled with sand. Kinnard says it works as a kind of temperature-delaying device. “It cools as the air around it cools, and it warms with warm air,” helping to cool or warm the interior air at appropriate times of the day, she says.

The model home is located at 222 Harrison Ave., in Lakeview. Visit reose.com for more information.
 

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