Its (Big) Easy Being Green

In the effort to rebuild New Orleans, sustainable design isnt a luxuryits a necessity. By Alec Appelbaum

Out of the disaster that Hurricane Katrina dumped on New Orleans’ poor, a greener future is beginning. Over the summer, the municipal government floated ideas about focusing rebuilding in “dry” areas. Understandably, residents from harder-hit neighborhoods had their own ideas. And amazingly, those ideas took over. Knowing that only sustainable design would allow their ecologically fragile communities to survive future storms, they appealed to national and local foundations to recruit leading urban planners to help them plan green. That effort, which began with initial workshops on October 14th, will lead to an official proposal for government-funded rebuilding projects—a document called the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP). Word has it that the UNOP building vision will be humane—and green.

“The most important thing for people is to get back into their homes,” explains Frederic Schwartz of New York’s Schwartz Architects, one of 13 firms working with civic groups over the winter in formal planning sessions. Conventional urban planning balances parks, transportation, schools, housing and jobs, but at present in New Orleans, there’s no time for convention. Housing is the only thing on many residents’ minds, says Schwartz.  “One woman at an early meeting said, ‘I don’t give a fuck about a public park, get me back into my house.’” The challenge is to find a way to build homes quickly, and make them last—and that’s where sustainability comes in. One of the main ideas in the UNOP is that only durable and energy-efficient homes will get residents from unstable shelters and into permanent housing—and protect them against future disasters.

Architects are helping neighborhoods explore new ways to keep homes close together, preserving tradition and reducing energy use. This proposal by Workshop/APD shows how new this old idea can look.


One green UNOP idea involves clustering homes together to reduce short car trips and spread the costs of new technologies (like solar panels) across several homes. The idea of building homes close together fits New Orleanians' traditions, too. “You have streets where people from different generations live near each other,” says Richard Hayes, a planner with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which helped neighborhood groups define their goals. “ACORN calls it cluster development,” he explains. “You never plan one structure at a time. This strategy allows residents to keep their communities intact and encourages them to reduce overall car trips, lawnmower runs and TV sessions—which can help control carbon emissions.

This page from Workshop/APD's winning entry in the Global Green design competition shows a New Orleans where natural light, car-free living, and close neighbors bring stability.


It’s also efficient to build from prefabricated materials, which reduce the time and truck traffic involved in construction. Matt Berman and Andrew Kotchen (of Workshop/APD, a small architecture and planning firm) recently leapt into the spotlight by winning the Brad Pitt-sponsored Global Green competition for sustainable New Orleans housing. Berman’s design for a low-lying neighborhood involves prefabricated modular houses, exterior stairwells that absorb sunlight to illuminate homes, and plazas with plenty of bike storage. He hopes to build the unit by next spring.

This example, from High Density on the High Ground by workshop/apd, shows how solar panels could provide power in new Crescent City plans.


Deborah Gans, another UNOP team adviser from New York, stresses the importance of designing with New Orleans’ particular ecology in mind. “You can use things that come naturally to the area that everyone understands,” says Gans. Such steps include building houses to face east for optimal daylighting, using natural ventilation to harness bayou breezes, and as Berman did in his winning design, building houses under tree overhangs to provide shade.

UNOP will also break the pattern of poor levee maintenance and shoddy civil engineering that preceded Katrina. That’s because severe hurricanes are almost sure to strike again. Global Green president Matt Petersen praises Workshop/APD’s winning design for its “survivability”—it gives houses enough cool interior space to stockpile food and medicine for up to 10 days. The Katrina disaster revealed decades of callow engineering imposed from outside, says Schwartz. Here’s hoping that as the Unified New Orleans Plan proceeds, smart design will help this shrunken city to grow—from its own residents’ ideas.  


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