It goes without saying that the levee breaks of aught-five marked a major turning point in New Orleans history. How much it changed us is still hard to say. But 10 years later, it has become clear that the big disaster changed the way we build and renovate – and thereby the way we live. Here are just a few of those ways.
We got higher. Hazard mitigation grants bought plenty of house lifts around town. Houses that once sat at grade now hover over their old foundations. New construction enjoyed a similar trend. Many new houses are built on mounds well above street level. Others deploy an old New Orleans trick: building on piers. In neighborhoods with a critical mass of new structures, the homes have a more regal bearing as a result – although a few people made the mistake of lifting their homes to an out-of-context extreme.
New construction got better. Many of the homes built in the New Orleans area in the years prior to Katrina were comparatively cheap looking or looked like they could be built in Anywhere, U.S.A. The new construction, in general, benefits from a greater appreciation of classic New Orleans architecture and a better understanding of to replicate it: getting proportions right, installing high-quality windows, using natural-looking materials, etc. To be sure, many new homes leave something to be desired, but the overall trend is positive.
Lakeview came back bigger. In many respects, Lakeview became like a new subdivision in a prime location. I grew up running the streets of Lakeview, so I can attest that it has never looked as healthy. The houses are also a heck of a lot bigger than they used to be. Kids are crawling all over the place. It’s a happy place again.
Renovators conquered new frontiers. During the past decade, neighborhoods like Mid-City, the Irish Channel, and parts of the Freret Street corridor and Central City have transformed. Major changes are also afoot along St. Claude Avenue. And there seems to be a new residential development announced in the CBD and Warehouse District every couple of weeks. With the passage of time, it is becoming increasingly apparent that New Orleans’ historic neighborhoods are national treasures. Newcomers to the city are dazzled and charmed, and many of them are becoming renovators.
Modernism was reborn. In the midst of all the old New Orleans nostalgia, the city caught a bit of a national trend in its appreciation of modern architecture and design. Some new construction is modern through and through. Some mid-century modern houses have been rehabbed. And some renovators have put thoroughly modern interiors under classic New Orleans skins.
Energy-efficient technologies took hold. Homeowners have begun experimenting with spray foam and other types of insulation. Bolstered by some of the nation’s most generous subsidies, solar panels
have become a fixture on many a New Orleans rooftop. And, casting aside space-wasting hot water heaters, renovators have embraced the more-efficient tankless variety.
Driveways got creative. Two trends cropped up as people built new driveways. One was to apply dyes and patterns to the concrete to give driveways a natural stone or brick look. Another was to limit the concrete altogether and use pervious materials, such as gravel. The latter approach gained a following as citizens became increasingly concerned about the need to recharge the water table and slow subsidence. Every little bit counts.
New trees took root. The disaster of 2005 did heavy damage to the local tree canopy. Volunteers and individual homeowners undertook the massive effort to restore it. To my eye, planters have put special emphasis on native trees, such as cypress. But, regardless of type, there are baby trees everywhere. I look forward to seeing how they look 10 years