I’m in New Orleans to report on the Make It Right Foundation and its efforts to build sustainable homes in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The foundation is a non-profit created by film actor and amateur architect Brad Pitt with architect and Cradle to Cradle advocate William McDonough and Graft, a Los Angeles-based multi-disciplinary architectural firm.
My goal is to find out how the design, specifications, and construction practices that enable Make It Right to produce LEED-Platinum new homes and sell them for $150,000 to low-income families might translate to the mainstream of green building, as well as how homeowners are adapting to and optimizing the efficiencies built into their homes. Is Make It Right a real-world application or a promotional aberration?
After only a few hours on the ground, I can report that it is neither. It is, simply stated, a better approach to creating successful, sustainable neighborhoods. Or, in the case of the Lower Ninth Ward, recreating.
Before Aug. 29, 2005, many of the 5,000 or so houses that packed the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans had been passed down from one generation to the next for decades, a tradition that resulted in the highest homeownership rate in the city despite the neighborhood’s minority, working-class profile.
Tennessee Street on a Friday afternoon resembled a block party, with kids playing in the street and neighbors chatting in their yards and greeting each other from their front porches. It was as vibrant and sustainable a neighborhood as anyone could define or conjure.
And then it was gone. The storm surge from Hurricane Katrina’s landfall crested or broke through the trio of levees that bordered the Lower Ninth Ward and swept it away.
Flash forward to the six-year anniversary of that tragedy. What remains are mostly symbols of the neighborhood’s past: concrete and brick stoops act as tombstones marking the homes they used to serve; signs denote the intersections of a vast grid of streets that are still buckled and pocked by the flood, and mostly empty.
That is, except for the northwest corner of the neighborhood, bordered by North Claiborne Avenue, the main thoroughfare into and along the Lower Ninth Ward, and Jourdan Avenue, which runs along the Industrial Canal levee that couldn’t hold back the storm surge. This is the epicenter of the flood, where all but a handful of the 350 homes built there were completely destroyed even before the city bulldozed the rest.