When Brad Pitt showed up to help fix New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, it raised hope—and eyebrows. Is his high-design, low-income green housing project what the neighborhood needs? GOOD investigates.
To people who lived where the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood once lay, just east of the Industrial Canal in New Orleans, Katrina wasn't really a natural disaster. It's remembered more as a catastrophe of human design, the failure of poorly conceived levees and susceptible homes, the shoddy construction of one giving way to the complete destruction of the other.
"One of the architects we've worked with a lot, Bill McDonough, always says that design is the first signal of human intention," says Tom Darden, the executive director of the Make It Right foundation, which has been working to rebuild part of the neighborhood since 2007. "If you extrapolate that statement to New Orleans, what were we intending when we were building ranch-style slab-on-grade houses that were not elevated at all? That were below sea level? That were supposedly protected by man-made levees? Those houses had no chance of being protected."
The people at Make It Right, the organization founded by the architecture enthusiast Brad Pitt, have slowly been constructing a design solution to that original design problem. With the right kind of housing plans, they figure, you can design your way out of low-lying floodplains, out of 130-mile-an-hour winds, out of humidity, high heat, and higher electric bills.
Their vision is more ambitious than those of the other nonprofit organizations and government agencies that came to town after Katrina. Most were hoping to shelter homeless families; Make It Right wants to model a new paradigm of sustainable low-income homeownership. Now, amid the emptiness, it is raising single-family homes on concrete stilts—angular buildings in bright colors with solar panels up top and rainwater collecting below. By the end of the summer, there will be 40 of these homes, sold for about $150,000 each, with another 20 under construction, a small first step in a neighborhood with thousands of empty lots.
It's a surreal scene: a hyper-modern housing development in the middle of nowhere that answers some of New Orleans's oldest building challenges even as it clashes with the city's traditional patina. And as building continues toward the initial goal of 150 units, some are beginning to wonder how they will fit into a neighborhood that still doesn't have a high school, a grocery store, or a post office—let alone a coherent streetscape.
Still, before Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward had one of the highest rates of homeownership in New Orleans: 59 percent of houses here were owned by their occupants. Once all the houses were gone, the earliest citywide redevelopment plans wrote off the area, questioning not just whether these houses should be rebuilt, but whether they ever should have been built in the first place.
"What really objectively made a lot of sense upon our immediate return was, Okay, let's repair what's left of the urban fabric, typically the older neighborhoods closer to the river," the architect Byron Mouton says of planning for the city at large. "All the areas that have been wiped out, let's see them wiped out, let's turn them into public land, and let's concentrate on repairing the neighborhoods that give us a great shot of bringing some sort of social culture back to this place."
Residents of the Lower Ninth balked at the suggestion. Their decision to rebuild—which Mouton now defends—was ultimately an obvious one. When Make It Right arrived three years ago, the questions around exactly how to do that turned much trickier.
How do you design LEED Platinum houses low-income families can afford? How do you elevate homes above future floodwaters without disconnecting them from the streetscape below? And how do you take what's now here—cutting-edge eco-homes from the minds of world-famous architects—and integrate them into a larger context, a fully rebuilt community?
By the time Make It Right arrived, fueled by Pitt's frustration that little had improved in his adopted home in the two years following the storm, a community long severed from the city was already wary of outside intentions. There were rumors that high-end developers would price people out of their homes, or that Donald Trump wanted to snatch up land for a casino. Pitt's pledge sounded no less far-fetched: Make It Right would build 150 high-design, lost-cost sustainable homes solely for people who had lived in the Lower Ninth Ward before Katrina. MIR first offered to rebuild on lots owned by families who wanted to return. Then it acquired adjacent properties, and residents from elsewhere in the Lower Ninth were invited to move in.
Initially, 13 architecture firms flew in for community design charrettes. Neighborhood leaders had already decided to rebuild sustainably, but they also wanted homes that would be protected from flood, that would preserve the community's front-porch culture, and with the high ceilings and large windows that have cooled New Orleans since before the days of central air. Firms were asked to loosely abstract elements from the traditional shotgun house and Creole cottage. They returned with mock-ups of happy families at home on futuristic-looking stoops.
"People saw them and thought, 'Oh wow, those are kind of weird, unique, maybe even to some degree strange,'" says Charles Allen, a community leader who now sits on the MIR board. "There were stranger ones than the designs we have now. But the beauty was there was an array to pick from. People don't like it, don't worry, it won't get forced down your throat."
Patricia Jones, who heads the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association, is more blunt: "I'm not saying they're ugly, they're just different. Some of them are hard on the eye, that's the best way I can say it," she says. "But we have families over there with twenty-dollar electric bills, so hey, that's real." The community just doesn't want to lose its identity in the process, she says.
"There was response saying, 'Hey wait, why are we experimenting in this neighborhood? Let's just do what we know,'" says Mouton, whose firm designed a house for the second phase of MIR duplexes. "Basically, I don't buy it. I think that in practice, we have the opportunity, the responsibility to be progressive. 'Experimentation' is a tricky word. We use the term 'experiment' to suggest that we're using people as guinea pigs, but that's not the point. We're simply trying to step forward."
Darden talks about the goal of "making a statement" with the project. He doesn't mean a visual statement, although that controversy has helped draw attention. Rather, MIR wants to prove that if sustainable housing can be built here, of all places, it can be built for low-income families anywhere.
"In the end, it has to be about [the residents of the Ninth Ward] and less about, 'Oh look at this Disneyland of some sort,'" says a contributing architect, James Timberlake. "That's really not how it was conceived. I don't think Brad Pitt and Make It Right saw it as some sort of design Disneyland. They saw it as helping out people."
Still—and Darden says MIR did not see this coming—at last count, 40 tour buses a day have been driving through to see it.
Clayton Evans lost everything in the Lower Ninth house his father built in the 1970s, and attended one of the foundation's community meetings to learn more about MIR. The foundation, whose staff of about 40 includes full-time outreach coordinators and housing counselors, has hosted meetings from conception through construction. Today, they're often held on a pair of concrete front porches on an empty lot that has been turned into a park.
"Make It Right was making homes that they called 'green.' I didn't know about that word, I hadn't heard it before," Evans says. "But they're building the exact type of house that I was thinking about." He wasn't particularly envisioning the conspicuous Eskew+Dumez+Ripple design he now owns, so much as the sustainable features inside.
These homes have metal roofs that won't fly off in high winds. They come with customized Kevlar hurricane fabric to snap over windows instead of boarding them up. The indoor paint and wood stains don't contain volatile organic compounds. The flooring is made of locally salvaged wood, and the carpeting can be recycled. The toilets are dual-flush, and the appliances are Energy Star. Architects worried about how homeowners would service expensive solar batteries, so they removed the batteries altogether. Power collected on top of these houses is fed back to the local grid, offsetting electric bills.
Of course, the houses cost more to build than they are selling for—MIR is losing money on this deal—and it's trying to make the houses even cheaper. Beyond the prototypes, the foundation is trying to pare down building costs to $150 per square foot, and eventually closer to the $130 market rate.
In the meantime, the foundation's resources—it had raised $35.7 million as of April—go to bridge the gaps between the cost of constructing the house and its price, and between that price and what families can afford. Most buyers bring about $75,000 of their own financing, including a mortgage of no more than a third of household income. MIR covers the rest in forgivable loans.
"A lot of people perceive the project as having been only made possible by the massive amount of charitable resources," says Ommeed Sathe, the real estate strategy director at the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority. "I think that's true, but to redo the project wouldn't require the same amount of resources."
MIR has been an R&D lab for the city, Sathe says. Before the foundation trained local contractors, no one in New Orleans knew how to pour the pervious concrete that absorbs rainwater. Training one contractor to do this for one house would be prohibitively expensive; MIR essentially shouldered this start-up cost. Throughout the project, the foundation has introduced new material streams, reduced the costs of learning to use them, and pioneered the path through a permitting office that had never seen any of this before. And it has evolved building schemes that use fewer resources and cut the cost of obtaining them by buying in bulk.
The city is planning to scale up a similar effort through a $30-million Department of Housing and Urban Development grant that will support 500 to 700 homes copying many of MIR's sustainable features, if not its high design. MIR will also test the scalability of its own concept later this year, with a multi-unit apartment building planned for Newark, New Jersey, to house low-income vets.
Of course, new construction—and particularly of this kind—always poses a challenge of context. MIR was reluctant to develop a master plan for the neighborhood because it didn't control all the lots in its target zone. The challenge of constructing each house superseded the strategy for how to connect them to each other, and to the Lower Ninth Ward at large. And the community didn't want more than MIR offered: 150 residences, to start.
"One of the things that has come out is there's an assumption that this particular project is saving the Lower Ninth Ward," Patricia Jones says. "It is not. There is a very complicated series of events and strategies that were put in place by the community, and Make It Right is part of that."
"One of the most complicated sets of problems was how to make all that fit back into a sense of neighborhood," says Austin Allen, a University of Colorado landscape architect who has worked in the area since 2005. Out of 18,000 parcels of land that comprised the neighborhood pre-Katrina, only about 3,000 are active now. Ten thousand are vacant, and on the rest sit houses whose future—whether they are demolished or rebuilt—is in limbo.
Tim Duggan joined MIR as a full-time landscape architect in late 2008 to focus on the questions Allen had been asking. MIR has since taken on a city pilot project to lay pervious-concrete sidewalks, and has helped plant 30 gardens to green the community and teach residents about wetland ecology. MIR is also planting native and edible trees that soak up storm water and offer shade. Eventually, the foundation may help think about how to build schools and where the fire department should go.
"The reality is the neighborhood is very vocal, very active, they know each other, they communicate very well," Duggan says, "and they've made it very clear, 'We don't want a developer from out of town, be it Brad Pitt or not, to come into our neighborhood and create a master development that changes everything and takes our land.'"
The current plan subverts the traditional urban planner's agenda: Conduct a site analysis, delineate land use, draw up what you want the neighborhood to be. Everything is built around that vision. "We're kind of doing the exact opposite," Duggan says.
The empty lots look like a blank slate, but there really is no starting from scratch here. This once was a neighborhood, and when the community prioritized how to get back there, it decided that everything had to start with houses, with getting people home.
"People who lost everything, they want their memories to come alive again," says Carol McMichael Reese, an architecture historian. "And so in that way, I think the clients of Make It Right have been very brave, really, because they've sort of embraced the future."
She was talking about the modern design of the homes themselves. But there's something even braver about moving into a modern home that's one of, for now, just a few residences in an expanse of empty lots.
Clayton Evans didn't rebuild on the plot originally bought by his father: He didn't want to go back to that block by himself. "I also didn't want to wait ten more years," he says, "for Make It Right to get to my street."
Illustrations by Scott Campbell.