Saving Energy In a Return to New Orleans's Lower 9th Ward

By Eileen Fleming
For the Associated Press
Saturday, November 1, 2008

NEW ORLEANS -- On a sliver of a demolished chunk of the Lower Ninth Ward is a cluster of modern homes being readied for the return of families. Here is cutting-edge design in an unlikely landscape.

The state-of-the-art, energy-efficient residences were designed by prominent architects and experts brought together by the Make It Right foundation, driven by actor Brad Pitt. The homes stand next to concrete slabs that are all that is left of houses bashed sideways by a levee break during Hurricane Katrina three years ago.

Solar panels adorn the new houses' roofs. Concrete columns hoist some of the homes several feet up off the ground, which remains vulnerable to flooding. Walkways of permeable concrete will allow rain to flow through, instead of pooling up; it's hoped that the material could end storm runoff and ease pressure on the city's pumping system.

Inside the homes, walls are sealed with sprayed insulation. The drywall is made without paper, so it will dry quickly and resist mold. Windows are made to withstand hurricane-force winds and do not need to be boarded up before a storm. The solar panels probably wouldn't survive a 200 mph wind, but the homes should.

"The idea is that [after a storm] families have a house to come back to," said Make It Right's executive director, Tom Darden. "The difference between having to replace your solar panels or having to replace your home is night and day."

Sitting in their car, watching the construction crews finishing up, were Lloyd and Rosemary Griffin, who will be moving in. They've spent many hours watching the construction of their house, which is replacing the one they moved into after Hurricane Betsy in 1965 -- the house that Hurricane Katrina washed away as they watched from a neighbor's roof.

"When the house left, it left with everything," said Rosemary Griffin. "We have nothing to remember that house, not even a picture. It got in the middle of the street and went past us."

That four-bedroom home is being replaced by a two-bedroom, 1 1/2 -bath house stocked with energy-efficient appliances. The new house is only a little smaller than its predecessor, but the power bills are expected to drop by 75 percent.

Lloyd Griffin said that's significant: The couple lives on a fixed income and had been paying an average $300 a month on energy before Katrina.

A key consultant in Make It Right's Lower Ninth Ward project was architect William McDonough, ranked by Vanity Fair magazine as No. 71 in its latest list of 100 Leaders of the Information Age. McDonough's "cradle to cradle" philosophy holds that buildings can produce their own energy and ultimately leave no ill effects on the environment. His other projects include Ford Motor's River Rouge turf-covered truck plant in Michigan, and a building at Oberlin College in Ohio that produces more energy that it uses.

McDonough's adviser for the Lower Ninth Ward project is Katherine Grove, who said energy independence "doesn't have to be rocket science." There are three basic principles, she said: Make sure there's daylight in every room, insulate according to climate and reduce water loads.

Green homes don't have to be new, she said. Reusing materials is especially beneficial in urban areas as long as the building's shell is safe. Salvaging old windows and frames, for instance, can be an efficient and attractive way to bring light through interior walls. Old mantels and other ornamental touches can add beauty.

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