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Saving Energy In a Return to New Orleans's Lower 9th Ward
State-of-the-Art Designs Help Residents Come Back to Hurricane-Damaged Area

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.

But it's important, Grove added, to make sure that recycled items are safe from toxic chemicals, such a lead paint.

In New Orleans, Darden said, the new houses incorporate some design elements used in the area for generations. Ceilings are high. Windows can be opened to bring in cool breezes. Porches are shaded.

Added to that are the solar panels and geothermal systems that can cool and heat using underground circulation.

To the Griffins, however, what's most important about the new house is that it will be their own. They've been staying with family in New Orleans and are anxious to get settled.

"We were born and raised here. This is where our roots are. We know no other place," Rosemary Griffin said.

Across the street is a two-story, four-bedroom house that's nearly ready for their neighbor, Gloria Guy, to move in with her son, daughter-in-law and five grandchildren. The 1,900-square-foot yellow house is eight feet off the ground, with solar panels and other energy-efficient features.

Guy said that energy bills at the house where her family has been staying in New Orleans have been running about $500 a month. At the new house, they're expected to be less than $100 a month. That helps make it possible for her to move back to the neighborhood she considers home.

"I had time to pray and time to think about it and I made my mind up to come back because I have more memories here," she said. "I know my neighbors. We were very close."

About a mile from the Make It Right project is another energy-efficient residence, the first of five planned houses to be accompanied by an 18-unit apartment building and a community center. The Global Green Holy Cross project, like the Make It Right project, aims for energy self-sufficiency.

Birgitta Bisztray of Global Green USA takes visitors on tours of the house. All the electricity comes from the 28 solar panels on its roof, she said. And knowing their house will have power when storms knock out public systems is reassuring for residents, she said.

"It's important to continue life as normal," Bisztray said.

The second floor has a deck that offers city views and a roof garden.

Interiors feature nontoxic materials, such as paint with low VOC (volatile organic compounds) and natural-fiber carpeting. Bathrooms feature dual-flush toilets. Windows are double-paned. Appliances are Energy Star whenever possible.

Among those touring the state-of-the-art home are groups refurbishing some of the thousands of residences damaged by Katrina. A Brookings Institution study found that as of March, the city was dealing with 65,000 blighted properties or vacant lots. It estimated that before the storm there were no more than 15,000 such properties.

Yet another project, about four miles from the Global Green house, involves about 100 homes being fixed up by a group called NOLA 100. It's funded by the Salvation Army, Clinton Foundation, Americorps and Hope Has a Face.

Keith Canfield has been managing the renovation of a duplex for 85-year-old Cloteal Conn, whose home sustained major damage in Katrina. Conn also lost $73,000 that she gave to a contractor who disappeared.

Canfield notes that meeting energy-efficient standards can be pricy, and he aims to make it more affordable. A dual-flow toilet, for instance, can cost several hundred dollars; his crew installed one for less than $100.

His $30,000 budget has included expandable foam insulation, a solar hot-water system, new windows, bamboo floors, and a ductless air conditioning and heating system. "It cost 20 percent more but will save thousands," he said.

Keeping energy costs low "can make or break someone's recovery," Canfield said.

"And the greenest thing you can do is renovate a house. It's the right thing to do."

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