Co.Design

A New Plan for Making New Orleans Sustainable for Generations

The USGBC's 2010 Natural Talent Design Competition re-orients recovery by building and measuring the sustainability of new homes.

Broadmoor is a late-1920s New Orleans neighborhood south of Mid-City and west of the French Quarter. It's distinctive not just because it is a socio-economic microcosm representative of the rest of the city, but also because Broadmoor is considered the "bottom of the bowl." As one of New Orleans' lowest-lying areas (it was a former marshland), Broadmoor was infamously identified as a "green dot" just after Katrina—the neighborhood was deemed not worthy of rebuilding. This direct challenge to the neighborhood's future mobilized the community to change their designation, and what resulted was an astonishing example of grassroots organizing that symbolizes the power and resiliency of community. Last week, during the five year anniversary of Katrina, I was lucky enough to meet these resilient residents of Broadmoor.

For the past five years post-Katrina, New Orleans has been portrayed as a mixed story of great successes and glaring failures. A spectacularly inept response from federal government paired with a lack of a functional local government opened up the city as a zone of experimentation. New Orleans has become a place where social entrepreneurship and innovation have abounded, yet not all of the programs have yielded great success, particularly those around the built environment. Despite some admirable philanthropic gestures like Brad Pitt's Make It Right program, the lack of contextual relevance of the newly built homes has led to a landscape pock-marked by exceedingly out of place, sculptural buildings that have no communication with their New Orleans neighborhoods. These efforts to embrace the future have been made at the expense of the past, alienating local communities and ignoring New Orleans heritage.

This vacant lot is a site for one of the USGBC competition finalists' homes

The USGBC has been acutely aware of this situation and structured their 2010 Natural Talent Design Competition to directly address this challenge. For this competition, students and emerging professionals from all over the world tried to balance affordability, access, sustainability, and livability. Each submission to the competition needed to provide the design for an 800 square-foot home in traditional "shotgun" style (on a 30' x 100' parcel of land). The designs had to be ADA compliant, follow the tenets of Universal Design, and meet the requirements for LEED Platinum rating—all managed within a $100,000 construction cost. Perhaps even more challenging though was the requirement that the homes had to fit well within the Broadmoor neighborhood—after all, the Broadmoorians themselves would be evaluating the designs.

This notion of sustainability will go far beyond eco-efficiency to become the fabric of the neighborhood.

In rebuilding their neighborhood, the Broadmoor community entertained concepts such as specifying single-family homes only, or perhaps even reforming as a gated community, but instead they opted to keep their multiunit zoning. This almost-abandoned neighborhood has recovered 82.6% to date. To move that percentage to the target 91% recovery that is considered the tipping point to stabilize the neighborhood, the USGBC brilliantly constructed this competition that goes beyond awards to making real impact.

Our new boss, the "mayor" of Broadmoor

376 teams submitted their solutions through the Open Architecture Network website. Local USGBC chapters culled the entries and the strongest 49 pre-finalist designs were vetted in the area of sustainability, accessibility, and cost by specialists who ranked each design. These designs were then put on display in the new Broadmoor elementary school where 110 community members (including 45 seniors) were each walked through the space with a volunteer who discussed each design. Community members voted on their favorites, and this magic number became a critical factor in the judging—the final "fit" ranking alongside ADA, cost, and LEED.

My team of fellow jurors—a mixture of architects, local leaders, activists, and Broadmoor residents—toured the neighborhood with the USGBC team, members of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, and leaders of the Salvation Army's Envirenew program. Viewing each lot and the adjacent homes gave us a direct sense of the consistent elements of the neighborhood: the uniform street line, raised basements, and prominence of outdoor "social" space. We also had a chance to meet members of this community and to hear their perspectives first-hand. This experience helped us select four finalists—not just by how successfully they met the competition criteria, but by their ability to encourage behavior befitting of the neighborhood. This notion of sustainability will go far beyond eco-efficiency to become the fabric of the neighborhood.

Architecture for Humanity's Cameron Sinclair debates the merits of the E.A.S.Y. House, reviewing ranking dots on the renderings' right corners

But anointing these 4 deserving designs—The Little Easy, RAMPed Up, E.A.S.Y. House, Greenboy—is not the end of the competition. Each of the 4 finalist teams will work with local architects to build the houses within the next nine months. Those homes will be gifted to the City of New Orleans and sold. The performance of the house—on each of the vectors—will be monitored and measured. The highest achieving home will win the competition and will be announced at Greenbuild 2011. In addition, the resulting construction documents for the 4 homes—these "templates for success," so to speak—will be available for any New Orleans resident to build in their own neighborhood at a cost of less than $2,000.

A few days after the Saints won the 2010 Super Bowl, I asked one of my New Orleans-based clients to describe the celebration in the city. He recounted a week of incredible festivities with decibel-defying cheering and music. "Have you ever been somewhere where it's so loud you don't know if you're making noise?" he asked me. He added that the celebrations were marking something else—the End of the Recovery. For me, this USGBC-Envirenew project is just that. New Orleans is not restoring its past, but building the future.


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