Just a few years ago it would have seemed preposterous: the idea that a modest New Orleans neighborhood could help teach the world how to build sustainable, affordable housing. Today the thought is not at all far-fetched. Credit for the change in perception goes to a disastrous flood followed by a massive injection of good will.
In 2005, the wrecked homes of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward became a widely recognized symbol of just how hard Hurricane Katrina and the resulting flood had hit the city. Though it was but one of several neighborhoods inundated when floodwalls broke on three area canals, the Lower Ninth Ward showed how deeply tragedy had struck some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens. Many in the neighborhood still mourn loved ones who were lost in the flood. No one in New Orleans can forget the images of houses shoved off their foundations or left broken by the force of the water.
Fortunately for local residents, those images also stirred a great many people far from the city. An outpouring of kindness and commitments to help came from around the nation and the world. Along with contributions from thousands of volunteers, who even today continue to donate their time and energy in the city, New Orleans has enjoyed the support of high-profile individuals and organizations determined to make a lasting mark on the recovery. Two among them: Global Green USA and movie megastar Brad Pitt.
Global Green is the U.S. affiliate of a worldwide organization founded in 1993 by former Soviet Union political leader Mikhail Gorbachev with a mission of “cultivating harmonious relationships between humans and the environment.”
Soon after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Global Green representatives began evaluating how to respond to the disaster while helping the city become a center for environmentally friendly construction techniques.
In short order, the organization unveiled a recovery effort that included building a sustainable, affordable housing community in the Holy Cross section of the Ninth Ward and a “green schools” initiative designed to assist thousands of local public school students.
Putting star power to work
Pitt, meanwhile, who was looking for ways to lend his considerable fame and influence to the recovery, saw opportunity in Global Green’s plans. While filming a movie in New Orleans, he and Angelina Jolie bought a home in the French Quarter, and he launched a design competition to develop a model for the sustainable reconstruction of the Holy Cross neighborhood.
Global Green recently unveiled the first visible result of that competition: a home that hearkens to the classic New Orleans shotgun-style house but also complies fully with the U.S. Green Building Council’s rating system for sustainable construction.
With funding primarily from the Home Depot Foundation, Global Green plans to build at least four more such homes in a core development that will include an 18-unit apartment building, a community center and a park. “We’re hopeful that this development will not only be the start of sustainable reconstruction of the area but also truly be a model for other cities and the world,” says Ruben Aronin, director of communications for Global Green USA.
Aronin says the new house, which recently opened for public viewing, eventually will become a visitor center that will offer technical assistance to homeowners who wish to build or renovate their own homes with Global Green’s guidance. The organization’s plan is to use donated and “found” materials, and offer financing assistance to buyers so that the homes can be sold for approximately $125,000 each when completed.
Meanwhile, spurred on by the success of the Holy Cross project, Pitt has dug still deeper into a recovery effort for the Lower Ninth Ward.
Investing in Sustainability
Last year Pitt and a host of corporate and nonprofit partners and individual supporters formed the Make It Right Foundation, with a goal of building 150 homes in the Lower Ninth Ward. Pitt and a partner, Steve Bing, committed to providing up to $10 million in matching funds in a fundraising effort that is growing day by day.
The foundation set a goal of building “a neighborhood of safe and healthy homes that incorporates modern, high-quality design and construction while preserving the spirit of the community’s culture.”
Pam Dashiell is among residents of the area who have embraced the idea. A former president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, Dashiell has worked closely with her neighbors and Global Green since the early days after the flood when they were first able to visit the devastated scene.
“What progress there has been has been completely because of individuals who made the determination to come back, supported by Global Green and Make it Right,” she says. “That outside investment is really giving people hope.”
Dashiell has become president of a new Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development, which helps to collect, receive and distribute building materials that comply with national sustainability standards. Supplies the center gathers range from solar panels to radiant barrier insulation to compact fluorescent light bulbs.
She says she understands that not all her neighbors feel equipped to come back to the area and engage in a struggle to rebuild. “We want everybody back, but one of our goals is to make sure that people can make an informed decision, because it’s not for everybody,” she says.
On the other hand, Dashiell says, adapting to the “green” building model comes rather naturally to residents of the area.
“The Lower Ninth Ward and Holy Cross always had a lot of green space and we had those values of resilience and making the most of what you have,” she says. “Conservation and preservation — that’s the essence of sustainability and that’s the way we are. So people here have been very receptive to these ideas.”
Charles Allen III agrees. Allen is a Ninth Ward resident and a spokesman for the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research, which serves as a liaison between Global Green and Holy Cross citizens. “We are a networking node for people who want to know how to get plugged in to the housing initiative,” he says.
Allen, who also is working with his father to repair the home their family has owned for almost three decades, says the Tulane/Xavier center is helping the effort to acquire the construction and housing materials homeowners need to repair or rebuild according to standards of energy efficiency and sustainability. The Louisiana Department of Natural Resources also provides assistance to this effort.
“We ask all Lower Ninth Ward residents to register with our center, tell us their needs, and then we see if we can order and/or purchase the materials in bulk,” he explains.
In addition, center representatives meet regularly with members of the Make It Right Foundation to discuss progress on fundraising and potential financing packages that will enable residents to purchase the homes that the foundation soon will begin building.
At press time, donors and sponsors had committed funding for more than half of the slated 150 homes in Make It Right’s initial target area. Pitt has said that once the success of this project is clear, he hopes to expand the work to additional areas.
The first Global Green house
Green building materials and techniques aim to increase the efficiency with which buildings use resources, such as energy and water, while reducing impacts on human health and the environment.
Effective green building can reduce operating costs by increasing productivity and using less energy and water. It can also improve public and occupant health through improved indoor air quality.
According to Global Green USA, the organization’s first home built in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward is highly energy efficient; has excellent indoor air quality; and makes maximum use of materials that have been recycled, found or “processed” without the use of harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde.
These are some other features of the home:
- Solar panels across the entire roof
- 1,000-gallon cistern below the house
- Reclaimed wood flooring and stair material with nontoxic finish
- Recycled-content ceramic tile
- Nontoxic paint containing no volatile organic compounds
- Paperless sheetrock
- Forest Stewardship Council-certified plywood and interior doors with nontoxic adhesives
- ENERGY STAR appliances
- Instantaneous or on-demand tankless water heater
- BluWood (nontoxic borate)-treated woods for protection against mold, fungus and termites
- Soy-based foam insulation
- Wheat board (agricultural fiber board) in millwork, furniture and flooring
- Compact fluorescent light bulbs
- Dual-flush toilets
- Low-flow faucets
The costs to build the Global Green homes range from $150,000 to $175,000, but the cost to homeowners, as a result of subsidies, will be about $120,000 to $150,000.
Donors can contribute to the Global Green project by giving a dollar sum or sponsoring specific items for a home — or an entire home — by clicking on the Holy Cross button at www.globalgreen.org.