Rebuilding a Green New Orleans: Social Enterprise in the Lower 9th Ward

nola-right.jpgExecutive Director of the non-profit Make it Right, Tom Darden, has been working closely with New Orleans officials and community leaders like Charles Allen in order to rebuild the Lower 9th Ward with eco-friendly houses. He dubs it, “the toughest redevelopment project in the country.”
As if the idea of constructing new, efficient and “green” homes in the devastated area weren’t innovative enough, the NGO’s origins are more original than most. Make it Right (MIR) was started by Brad Pitt in response to hurricane Katrina. It now has 25 employees and just completed its first 6 environmentally friendly homes built using the cradle to cradle philosophy of zero waste.

How it works:
Hurricane Katrina devastated the Lower 9th Ward, but now landowners can partner with MIR to rebuild an eco-friendly house. On MIR’s website viewers can watch a short introduction by Brad Pitt where he distinguishes the initiative as a “hand-up” rather than a handout. Landowners contribute 85% of the money that they have, which usually comes from personal savings and money received from Road Home when their houses were destroyed. Landowners also take on a mortgage that is up to 30% of their salary. Finally MIR pays the remaining portion of the house, and residents sign a contract promising to remain in the house for 5-25 years depending on the size of the MIR contribution.
pitt-nola.jpgMIR revenue Streams:

MIR is funded through donations and grants. It’s Christoesque Pink House fundraiser brought in $30M and the organization also recently got $10M from American Idol. Currently the money is used for the office overhead and covering a portion of the environmentally friendly houses. However, Darden is confident that MIR will soon be able to step out of its role of house funder as it aligns with local New Orleans housing subsidies and improves green building techniques to lower housing costs.,0.jpg
Eco-friendly Houses:

The architectural designs are donated from famous architects including William McDonough. Currently the houses carry a “green premium” in their price of about 11%, however Darden believes that this higher price tag will decrease to match traditional houses in 2 years. “We are still learning how to order supplies and build efficiently, but we are getting better.” Darden also noted that construction crews need education in working with green building materials. “If they aren’t used to the material, they have this knee-jerk reaction to jack up the price, so it’s vital for us to train them ahead of time.”
The houses themselves offer their owners cost savings as both utility bills and maintenance are dramatically reduced. For example, the wood decks are made using a material called Timbersil which is glass infused wood that never rots or grows mold. Houses are equipped with solar panels and on a sunny day in New Orleans they actually make money for their owners.
MIR’s goal is to work with the community to build 150 eco-friendly homes over the next years. When I asked, what MIR would do afterwards Darden smiled. “Everyone keeps asking us that. I don’t know honestly. Maybe we will move to another New Orleans neighborhood or continue disaster relief in other parts of the US or the world. The possibilities are endless, but right now we are just focused on building 150 homes.”

Buy-in from the communities is key. Enter Charles Allen. Allen is from the Lower 9th Ward and in addition to his day job managing external relations for Xavier and Tulane Universities, Allen volunteers to gain community support for initiatives aimed at rejuvenating the area. “Patience is key,” he says calmly. “MIR has a very deliberate approach and a commitment to the communities and that’s why it has been so successful, but it’s tough at times and we can’t always move as quickly as we would like to.”
Darden and Allen work with the landowners to educate them on environmental sustainability, the advantages of the houses, and also work with the landowners to work out the financing. The landowners choose the design and color of their house based on their needs and preferences.
With regards to the local economy Allen explains that, “people are still dealing with bread and butter issues. New Orleans is still struggling.” Allen is working on getting green businesses to also set up within the Lower 9th Ward. “In terms of industries, we currently have tourism and a utility company. It isn’t enough to employ everyone.” He notes that the city of New Orleans is aware of this issue and is making a push to bring in companies in the medical technology and film industry to create more jobs. It’s gong to have to be one step at a time.
For more information: Check out MIR’s website and this link for a quick video snapshot.
Net Impact 2008 was covered by Tristan Handy, Liz Paxton and Napoleon Wallace, who are all currently attending the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC in Chapel Hill. Prior to school, Tristan ( was an IT project management consultant with Deloitte, Liz ( worked in Morocco as a Peace Corps Volunteer and marketing manager for Aid to Artisans, and Napoleon ( came from energy I-banking.
Please look for their coverage and continued insights on last weekends NI 2008 conference. Posts will include interviews of conference speakers, conference overview, as well as in-room reviews of the major conference tracks of the weekend.

Net Impact 2010 will be hosted by the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Stay tuned for coverage!

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