I was down in New Orleans back in the last week of April. The Deepwater Horizon disaster was a week old, and we were all still hopeful that it would be short-lived. The oil was twenty miles out in the Gulf so there was really nothing to see without a helicopter.
Since I’d left my heli at home, I decided to take a ride over the Lower Ninth Ward instead.
(photo – a new home in the lower 9th ward)
The Lower Ninth is the part of New Orleans that had become emblematic of all the post Katrina failures. It was extremely hard hit, particularly by the flooding that occurred after the storm had passed and the levee broke. Being a traditional working class neighborhood that urban flight had let deteriorate into a low income neighborhood, it was safe to say that none of its residents had any friends in Washington standing by, ready to help. Flooded homes were boarded up and folks moved away to stay with family or anywhere they could find a dry spot to lay down. These storm refugees became poster children for the disenfranchised.
This was back when many authorities were saying that we should simply abandon New Orleans, particularly the Lower Ninth, since it was only a matter of time before another killer hurricane hit, so why bother rebuilding?
Pitt saw this as an opportunity to make a single powerful statement that would address three distinct but equally compelling issues:
- Social justice: These people matter, even if they don’t have money.
- Robust homes: Homes can be designed to withstand this type of storm.
- Sustainability: All of this can be done in a low impact, sustainable manner.
At the same time, Pitt’s vision was to do all this at an affordable price. This posed a challenge for the best minds. So he put it out there to the community of architects and they responded enthusiastically. Thirteen architects from around the world, including Shigeru Ban from Tokyo, Constructs from Ghana, Adjaye Associates out of London, and US firms Pugh+Scarpa, KieranTimberlake, and Morphosis, have contributed designs for these exceptional houses, all of which have been certified LEED Platinum. The current cost is roughly 15% above that of typical construction in the area. But that is for a LEED Platinum certified house designed to withstand flooding up to eight feet and winds of up to 140 miles per hours. Plus, when you factor the reduction in energy costs due to the extensive use of closed cell foam insulation, solar and geothermal power, advanced high velocity HVAC, windows and framing techniques, and the use of super-insulated panel construction, that doesn’t seem to be such a big problem. The average utility bill for these houses is around $37 per month which is about one tenth the average monthly cost for typical construction.
Besides, when I was there, they had only completed 28 of the 150 homes they planned to build. So they were still fairly low on the learning curve and expected to narrow the price gap as they gained experience building these designs.
Every item that is used in any of these houses goes through a rigorous scrutiny, to ensure that it is suitable for cradle to cradle application. As an example, no traditional pressure treated wood is used on the site, because of the dangerous chemicals they contain (e.g. arsenic). Instead they are using a product which is a basically wood with sand infused into it, a totally biodegradable product. The house that my host Caesar Rodriguez, took me into was almost complete and yet there were none of the chemical smells that usually accompany new construction. Rodriguez told me that their “focus was entirely on building sustainable, affordable, safe, healthy homes, all delivered with high design.”
Look for more about some of the special features of these houses in Part 2 of this post.
RP Siegel is the co-author of Vapor Trails, a novel set in New Orleans, that offers a behind the scenes look at a big oil company and how they respond to a number of environmental disasters of their own making. Photos by Ron Bernstein.