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New Orleans: Rebuilding it Right

by Danny Forster on Apr 8, 2010

I visited New Orleans for an episode on Build it Bigger about the houses being built under the auspices of the Make It Right foundation. I was impressed. Yes, it′s Brad Pitt′s baby, if I might use that term, but no, this is no celebrity photo shoot. It′s a legitimate and mostly successful attempt to rebuild a small part of New Orleans in a stronger, more sustainable way.

Make It Right′s mission is to help folks come home, specifically to the Lower 9th Ward, which was hardest hit by the Hurricane Katrina and the levee break in 2005. But they don′t want to build what was there before; they want to build in a stronger, more sustainable way. Their idea is to plant a seed of sustainable development in the toughest soil—literally the toughest, since it′s practically a swamp, and economically the toughest too. If the seed can flourish there, it should be able to grow throughout New Orleans.
Their idea is to plant a seed of sustainable development in the toughest soil….If the seed can flourish there, it should be able to grow throughout New Orleans.
So they invited local, national, and internationally known architects to sit down with members of the community and find out how they wanted to live. They talked it all out, from the history of the neighborhood to what made it home to what happened in August 2005. Just by thinking through the requirements of the climate and the culture, the architects (who were donating their time) came up with some incredible innovations, like pervious concrete on the driveways, which allows rain to go straight back to the water table; walls made of concrete board, which can dry out again after a flood; escape hatches in the roofs, just in case. Water reclamation systems and solar paneling reduce energy and water costs, so homeowners can actually afford to pay their bills once they move in. And the houses respect and celebrate the Lower 9th′s culture, by doubling front steps as benches for front porch socializing, and preserving the shotgun shape (long and skinny) of the houses of New Orleans past.

It′s going too slowly, of course. And the 150 houses Make It Right plans to build make up a fraction of the 4,000 lost as a result of Katrina. But the whole project shows how much can be done by starting not from what was there before, and not from preconceived ideas of single-family houses, but from a set of problems and preferences. By asking questions. That kind of mindful architecture has already made the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans the most sustainable neighborhood in the United States.
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