Innovative solutions for creating healthy, efficient, eco-friendly homes

Green Rebuilding in New Orleans

To get to the Lower Ninth Ward, you must successfully negotiate a series of obstacles. First, you have to figure out where it is. Second, you must drive east for a long time, keeping the river to your right as you move away from Uptown, through the warehouse district, past the French Quarter and into the Marigny neighborhood, where you might get stuck (as I did) behind a train traveling 2 mph on tracks that cut across the city. If that happens, you’ll have to wait more than 15 minutes for said train to move out of your path.

Then you must continue through Bywater to the next obstacle, a drawbridge, where you’ll wait (again) for a ship to pass through the canal. Finally, you must cross the bridge and take a right. There you will find an unlikely paradise — a little-known, out-of-the-way epicenter exhibiting the latest in green building technologies.

More than three years after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans, visitors from around the country still make this pilgrimage to the Lower Ninth Ward — but they’re not documenting tragedy. They’re going to witness the rebuilding and revitalization of a community no wind or rain could wash away. During the past year and a half, the Holy Cross neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward has garnered attention nationwide for both its resilience and determination to rebuild its flooded homes, and its commitment to build better through the use of eco-friendly, energy-efficient, sustainable building practices.

Affordable Green
Holy Cross is the site of Global Green’s 21st Century Shotgun home, one of only 22 homes in the country certified at the Platinum level under the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program, and the only one in the Southeast open for free public tours. Each day, more than 30 visitors on average are welcomed into this three-bedroom, two-bath, two-story model home to experience firsthand the materials and practices employed by Global Green to construct an all-green, LEED-compliant single-family residence.

After the storm, Matt Petersen, president of Global Green USA — a nonprofit environmental organization based in California — decided to open an office in New Orleans as a green building resource for those planning to rebuild their homes in the wake of Katrina. Petersen partnered with actor Brad Pitt, whom he met at the 2005 Clinton Climate Initiative in New York, to hold a competition to design a green, energy-efficient yet affordable housing development in the Holy Cross neighborhood.

Petersen, Pitt and a host of Holy Cross residents selected as the winning plan a submission by the New York firm Workshop/APD. The 21st Century Shotgun home is the first completed structure in the development, which ultimately will include five single-family homes, an 18-unit apartment complex and a community center that will also house a grocery store, police substation and Global Green offices.

With the 21st Century Shotgun home, “we wanted to show the very best that green building can accomplish,” says Beth Galante, an environmental attorney and executive director of Global Green, in New Orleans. “At the same time, we didn’t want to build the most expensive green house. We wanted to shoot for an affordable house.”

While funds are still being raised for the community center, Global Green broke ground on the remaining four single-family homes at the end of August, and will follow that with construction of the apartment complex. The organization, which expects to complete construction on the entire project by the end of 2009, plans to sell the homes for around $150,000 each and rent the apartment units for between $225 and $1,075 a month.

Modern Meets Traditional
The two-story 21st Century Shotgun home features a modern design inspired by the traditional shotgun style home (characterized by its narrow width and expansive length) is inherent to New Orleans. It is located on a previously vacant lot, and was carefully oriented on the lot to ensure maximum efficiency. There are only five low-emission, double-pane, shaded windows on the home’s south side, but 11 on the north, which will reduce the amount of heat entering the home while allowing as much natural light as possible to enter. Likewise, trellises on the exterior south wall are covered with Carolina jasmine, a deciduous plant that will provide shade in summer and allow heat to warm the house in the winter when the plant sheds its leaves.

The structure has a standard wood frame, but the builders used BluWood — which was treated at the factory with Perfect Barrier, a natural borate finish that protects against mold, rot and termites — for all studs, rafters, blocking, sheathing, joists, beams, decking and exterior screening. All wood used inside and out is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which guarantees it came from sustainable, well-managed forests, or has been salvaged and reclaimed from existing structures slated for demolition. This includes wood used for window frames, doors, cabinets and soffits, as well as the flooring of reclaimed cypress, an indigenous wood that is naturally termite and rot resistant.

Two-inch rigid foam insulation board was installed around the exterior of the building so it can be removed without damaging the drywall in the event of a flood. Likewise, paperless sheetrock was chosen to prevent mold growth due to humidity or flooding. In addition, a radiant barrier was installed around the exterior of the building to expel heat and insulate the home. Fiber cement, a durable alternative to wood products, was chosen as siding due to its natural termite- and water-resistant and non-combustible properties.

The home has a metal roof made with partially recycled metal. The roof’s reflective properties help save nearly 40 percent of heating and cooling costs. In addition, the roof has a radiant barrier, which also reduces energy consumption by lowering the home’s cooling loads. The roof will weather well in the region’s harsh climate, and should last for 30 years or more.

A 5.3 kW solar photovoltaic system, mounted on the roof, is comprised of 28 solar panels, which convert sunlight into usable electricity to power the home. At peak sunlight hours, the system produces surplus electricity, which is sold back to the local utility through the city’s first net meter. The solar power system can withstand wind gusts of up to 150 mph.

A geothermal heat pump is responsible for the largest improvement in the home’s energy efficiency, when compared to a typical home. Also known as a ground source heat pump, the system uses the natural, constant temperature found below the earth’s surface to heat or cool the home by running water through a network of underground pipes to adjust its temperature and subsequently heat or cool the home by circulating that water back through the house.

High Scorer
The 21st Century Shotgun home, which was built in only seven months, qualifies for the highest level of LEED certification, meaning it scored high in all five major assessment categories: site development, energy efficiency, water conservation, material selection and indoor air quality. The builders relied on green construction and building techniques any homeowner can implement.
In addition to large-ticket items like the solar photovoltaic system and geothermal heat pump, as well as a 10,000-gallon water cistern beneath the deck that stores rainwater from the roof and deck for use in irrigation and toilet needs, the home features a number of smaller, more affordable features, including:

• dual-flush toilets
• low-flow faucets and showerheads
• compact fluorescent light bulbs
• Energy Star-rated appliances and bathroom exhaust fans
• a tankless hot water heater
• environmentally friendly, nontoxic interior fabrics, paints and finishes.

Last but not least, the home has an energy- and water-monitoring dashboard designed to measure the home’s current and previous energy, energy production, and water and gas consumption. Using real-time feedback and intuitive graphics, it provides various graphics designed to motivate and empower the homeowners to conserve resources.

“I think in the next five years, or certainly in 10 years, every home is going to have some form of energy monitor,” says Galante. “It helps you to see all those instruments — that information you use to help you make smart decisions. If you do that for people in their homes, the more they see, the better they’re going to do.”

Global Green believes the home, as well as the entire development project, can inspire others rebuilding in New Orleans to incorporate energy-efficient practices. It also hopes the increased interest in green building will spark further governmental research, and greater production and sales of green materials, which will help lower the cost of green building and provide accessible solutions to the problem of rising energy costs.

Sarah Andert lives in New Orleans, where she writes and works with Tulane University’s Center for Public Service as a senior program coordinator, connecting students with rebuilding opportunities throughout the city.