It all started with pink fabric. When Brad Pitt first had his vision of rebuilding a sixteen square block section of the Lower Ninth Ward, he conceived an art installation consisting of 429 pink fabric geometric shapes representing future homes, laid out on the 150 lots that would someday hold the actual homes of returning residents. With this Pink Project as a focal point and inspiration, they were able to raise $12 million with which to initiate Make It Right.
Make It Right has committed to building the first 150 houses in the storm-devastated neighborhood which consists of 360 lots total. Some of the lots will be maintained as green space and the rest will be built on by private interests who will surely want to be a part of this very unique and vibrant community.
This sustainable rebuilding effort is unique in so many ways with its leading edge architects, its cradle to cradle selection of materials, its emphasis on super-energy efficient design, and the robust construction, with wind-shedding roofs and super-strong walls that are inherently planned to withstand the kind of punishing weather common to the area. All the houses, many of which are built eight feet above the ground, are equipped with rooftop hatches, so that in the event of a flood, if the family needs to evacuate to the attic, they can escape to the roof without need of an axe. A specially formulated moisture resistant dry wall will not support mold should it become wet. Walls which were designed to withstand 130 mph winds, when combined with closed-cell foam insulation proved to be much stronger than that. Some of the houses I saw use two-by-sixteen lumber as part of their structural framework.
Homeowners are selected through a rigorous application process, which emphasizes working with returning families when possible. Families receive financial assistance when needed for these homes, that cost anywhere from $120,000 to $160,000. The houses are, on average, 1,400 square feet. New homeowners also receive classes in basic homeownership as well as in some of the advanced features of these state-of the-art-homes, such as the passive solar features or geothermal air conditioning systems with high velocity supply ducts.
The houses are anything but alike. The first wave of designs consisted of thirteen very unique concepts, and seven additional designs are being added.
Another aspect of the job site that truly impressed me was how small the dumpsters were. While typical construction is one of the highest waste-generating activities around, this project is well on its way to zero waste. First, the framing technique that is being used was brought over from Australia, where wood is quite scare. Every piece of wood is carefully fitted to its purpose so that very little is discarded. Most of what is not used is recycled. Whatever does go to the landfill will generally fit into a 6 cubic yard dumpster. This, according to site agent Bill Lawton, compares quite favorably with the 40 cubic yards or more of landfill fodder that comes off of a more typical home construction site.
Our last stop was at the floating house. This home has a buoyant “chassis” made of Styrofoam wrapped in concrete, which also contains all of the plumbing and utility lines. In the event of a flood, the house, which has two fourteen foot poles rising up through it to keep it from drifting off, floats up out of harms way, while the chassis disconnects from the foundation. It is truly an ingenious feat of engineering.
Now, if they could only do something about oil spills…
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 it responds to a number of environmental disasters of their own making. Photos by Ron Bernstein.