N.Y. Architects Go Green Rebuilding New Orleans

With the repopulation of New Orleans at a standstill a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina washed out much of the city, resident Pam Deshiell said she hopes a New York-designed model of a low-cost, green community will jumpstart redevelopment in her neighborhood, the Holy Cross section of the decimated Lower Ninth Ward.

The design in question, called GreeN.O. LA, was created by the boutique Midtown architecture firm workshop/apd, and it will be a prototype community built on 1.5 acres on a weed-filled lot in Holy Cross to showcase affordable, environmentally friendly housing to developers seeking to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Ground breaking is slated for later this month.

For Ms. Deshiell, the president of her neighborhood association, it can't come soon enough. Holy Cross, a historic district where the Industrial Canal meets the Mississippi River and the only part of the Lower Ninth Ward above sea level, reopened to residents in May 2006. Ms. Deshiell is pinning her hopes on GreeN.O. LA to bring people back to the neighborhood by building new housing on its vacant lots and replacing blighted homes. Only 8% of the neighborhood's pre-Katrina population of 5,500 has returned, even though the vast majority of homes are "salvageable," she said. Citywide, the return rate is stalled at 48%.

"It's like living on the frontier. We're not trying to secede from the city, but the needs are massive," Ms. Deshiell said of her workingclass, mostly African-American neighborhood. Electricity and water treatment are still unreliable, she says.

A California-based environmental advocacy group, Global Green, saw the devastation along the Gulf Coast as an opportunity to push for environmentally friendly construction in New Orleans and nationwide. With backing from an actor and recent New Orleans transplant, Brad Pitt, Global Green last summer held a green community design contest, which the GreeN.O. LA design won over 120 other submissions, earning a $50,000 prize.

Global Green owns the site of GreeN.O. LA's future development, and the organization is now courting its A-list celebrity financial backers, including Mr. Pitt and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, to pay for the construction. The first building is expected to be functional by August, in time for the second anniversary of Katrina. One major New Orleans-area developer is looking into replicating GreeN.O. LA elsewhere in the region, according to the organization.

"Global Green sees New Orleans as the line in the sand. It's the first major city impacted by climate change," the director of Global Green's New Orleans office, Beth Galante, said.

New York-based architects Matthew Berman and Andrew Kotchen, the principals of workshop/apd, had never worked on a project of this scale before. Their company works mostly on highend residential projects, including homes on Central Park West and in the Hamptons.

GreeN.O. LA was a crash course for them, they said. The project includes homes for 23 families, each elevated 3 feet aboveground. It has a community center and a daycare center, and it also boasts de rigueur green features such as photovoltaic roofs to generate enough electricity to meet 80% of a home's needs, making it almost self-sufficient and reducing the stress on New Orleans' fragile electrical grid.

Messrs. Berman and Kotchen designed GreeN.O. LA to meet the highest standards of the U.S. Green Building Council, called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

Green building is catching on nationwide, despite a slowdown in housing starts. One report last June by the National Association for Home Builders and McGraw-Hill Construction estimated that green homes would account for up to 10% of housing starts by 2010, up from 2% in 2005.

A big challenge for the architects was making their design harmonious with New Orleans's "gumbo of architecture," as one resident calls it, and taking advantage of the site's physical location by the Mississippi River.

Their sensitivity to New Orleans's heritage and ability to incorporate the concerns of residents into their redesigns helped the New Yorkers win, according to Ms. Deshiell.

"There are echoes of New Orleans style," Ms. Deshiell said of GreeN.O. LA's covered porches and high ceilings.

"In New Orleans, the past is sacred," Mr. Berman, a graduate of Columbia University's architecture school, said. "Anything different was initially received with hesitation."

However virtuous green building, cost is the no. 1 consideration in the battered region, a local architect and member of the Louisiana chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, Nick Musso, said.

But the speed with which a modular house can be built - half the time of a regular house - appeals in particular to housing-starved New Orleanians eager to move out of the trailers provided to them by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"There is no groundswell for green housing so much as for affordable housing," Mr. Musso said.

Ms. Galante of Global Green said she agrees. She blames what she called a lumbering federal and state government response for grinding the city's comeback to a halt. She noted in particular the Road Home project, which was designed to help people finance repairing or rebuilding their homes. The funds could also be used to buy a house in GreeN.O. LA. As of last month, it had received 109,000 applications but made only about 2,300 settlements.

GreeN.O. LA will be an affordable housing complex, with a singlefamily house going for about $150,000, the same figure as the maximum payout given by Road Home. Preference will likely be given to displaced Lower Ninth Ward residents.

Architects estimate that green construction raises upfront costs by some 10% but ends up paying for itself over three to seven years through lower utilities. Still, a dearth of construction workers and high demand for materials has made building costs go up by up to 20% since the hurricane, Mr. Musso said.

Holy Cross sits on the so-called sliver by the river, the thin band of land above sea level that snakes along the river, so there may be little choice but to build more densely on higher, safer ground. Holy Cross has enough blighted homes that can be razed and empty lots to build on for GreeN.O. LA to be replicated and house hundreds of new residents, Ms. Galante said.

Ms. Deshiell is confident that the project, however modern, will help her neighborhood and city make a comeback. "After the storm, people are ready to embrace new ideas because we know it's never going to be like it was again," she said.

"Most of these people lost their homes because of federal government failures," Ms. Galante said. "The government needs to free these funds."

Ms. Galante also said she would like to see programs to help renters, who make up 54% of the city's population. Otherwise, she said, GreeN.O. LA could remain a one-of-a-kind installation.

"A lot of people have reached the conclusion that if we're going to rebuild our city, it'll be done by private individuals and developers," Ms. Galante said.

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