There isn’t a lot that Special No. 9 House doesn’t represent in progressive residential architecture. Designed by Philadelphia-based firm KieranTimberlake for the Barnes family (who lost their home in Hurricane Katrina) and the Make It Right Foundation (founded in 2007 to prompt sustainable and rapid redevelopment in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward), the home takes every advantage of solar orientation, rainwater collection, and site exigencies to make the most of its 1,520 square feet, the average lot size of first-generation Make It Right homes. Exterior shading, optimized natural ventilation, integrated photovoltaics, non-solvent-based adhesives, and low- or no-VOC paints keep the subtropical house cool and self-sustaining. For all of these reasons, the house holds a 2010 AIA/COTE Top Ten Green Project designation and LEED Platinum certification. What also makes Special No. 9 House so, well, special is its potential for ecologically driven prefab housing that answers both the needs of the homeowner and the home’s physical location.
Situated in the center of a slightly trapezoidal lot and anchored in the clay soil by 35-foot piers, Special No. 9 House hovers over a ground-level car park. The shotgun-style living space favors sleeping quarters over common areas, with four bedrooms and three bathrooms; a long central hallway creates the interior’s dominant axis, but not at the expense of making the living and dining area feel like a stop along the steady march of rooms from front to back. Set off to the side, across from the kitchen, the living and dining areas open onto a raised front porch, creating a multipurpose space apart from the primary circulation areas of entry and hall.
The design solution was born out of the particular needs of homeowners Melba Leggett and Baxter Barnes. Melba, a school cafeteria worker, has a disabled brother who requires round-the-clock care. There’s also her half-brother’s mother, who needs an elevator. “We have 21 different designs for homes here, and each homeowner will tell you that theirs is the best,” says Taylor Royle, communications director for Make It Right. “We experiment with different ways of building, from stick to modular to SIPs houses, but we always try to do whatever is the most sustainable and the most cost-effective,” she adds.
Facing east to the street, the house appears as two proportional volumes enveloped by a south-side trellis that supports photovoltaic panels and shelters the roof deck, accessible from a rear porch. Running the length of the house, the roof deck quadruples the amount of common space.
Like all of the first-generation houses completed in 2008 for Make It Right, Special No. 9 House was stick-built expediently on site. The home’s design went on to function as a KieranTimberlake prototype for a series of second-generation prefabricated homes, of which four have been built. Each of these second-generation homes was created with owner specifications in mind. As such, the homes attempt to improve on the tradition of prefabrication, which often favors design expediency and efficiency over placemaking and customization. By definition, prefabrication is a placeless practice. Largely designed and fabricated outside of the community where they ultimately reside, the homes can be disconnected from local labor and building economies.
KieranTimberlake took a different approach. The firm designed homes for New Orleanians with real climate and site conditions in mind. They also aimed to bolster the local economy, according to design partner James Timberlake, FAIA. He contends that building a scalable local industry around component manufacturing would provide much-needed jobs for the region.
Timberlake worries that the housing industry in general is missing an opportunity. “[They] are responding to choices surrounding appearance and lifestyle, not choices about lifecycle or operating costs for the homeowner,” he says. “It flabbergasts me that the industry in this flat economy did not use this situation to morph to an off-site strategy. They’re still relying on non-scalable building sets,” he adds.
Make It Right stands foremost behind a distinct and targeted goal for the Ninth Ward’s revitalization. Timberlake believes Make It Right also is providing the leverage to transform chatter about the benefits of prefabrication into an actionable model that honors placemaking. Working on a 25- or 30-year time frame, he hopes to help establish infill strategies for the Lower Ninth that take the long view about bolstering a sense of place in concordance with local memory and more holistic notions of sustainability.
Since 2008, all Make It Right homes have been built to LEED Platinum standards, and the organization expects that each of its additional 150 homes will follow suit. “Our whole goal is to build homes that are well-designed, sustainable, energy-efficient, and safe, at a price that a working family can afford,” Royle says. “We want to help families here, but we also want to change the building industry.”
Make It Right is optimistic that its homes can serve as models for other regions, distressed or not. Timberlake agrees. “We’ll get to a point where we can take a Make It Right house and tune it to a very, very specific local environmental circumstance for southern Georgia or North Dakota,” Timberlake says. “This is at our fingertips.”