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Challenges at ‘Ground Zero’ for green building

REBUILDING In the Gentilly neighborhood, the homes were in various state of repair.

NEW ORLEANS —The Big Easy has been characterized by some builders as “ground zero” for the green building movement.

The huge number of homes being renovated and rebuilt, coupled with a desire to help lower costs for poor residents, has made New Orleans a microcosm for green building nationwide and the primary battleground for numerous green points of view. The National Association of Home Builders saw fit to hold its annual green building conference in the Crescent City, and HCN trailed some of the biggest stakeholders in green building to gain insight on where, exactly, this movement is going.

Will Bradshaw, president of Green Coast Enterprises, a New Orleans green builder, characterized the city as a test tube for green building practices. That’s because, he explained, in the years preceding Hurricane Katrina, home building activity in New Orleans was somewhere in the range of 800 to 1,000 new homes per year. The hurricane wiped out more than 100,000 homes.

“New Orleans is ground zero for all of these issues coming together—sustainable building and affordable building,” he said. People are testing new concepts that have never been tried before, and learning innovative ways to build relationships with manufacturers and distributors to fill their widely varied needs.

One project from Green Coast Enterprises is an example. A multi-family development over looking the New Orleans fair grounds, the Arabella at Fortin Street uses a steel frame structure, described as a strong and yet recyclable option. To facilitate the innovative framing process, Green Coast formed a partnership with the Steel Framing Alliance, a Washington, D.C. group that advocates steel-frame building and has an office in nearby Mandeville, La. Other new touches include surfaces from the manufacturer EnviroGlas, based in Plano, Texas, which recycles glass bottles to create unique, durable countertop surfaces, among other products. Bradshaw has utilized a local distributor, Gulf Enterprises, to help secure green products and also cut down on some costs, in addition to working with plumbing supply company Ferguson.

New Orleans is a tough testing ground for the distribution of green products because of its location. Sergio Grado, owner of green building products retailer Green Builders Source in the Houston area knows this story well.

“Right now, still, most of the product is coming from the West Coast and the East Coast—these places that have been a little bit more entrenched in the distribution of green building products,” he said. “What’s happening now is that, with rising gas prices, what people are looking for is a way to find products that are closer to home.”

Grado said he’s worked hard to identify more localized manufacturers and recently added more local companies such as Houston-based Attic Breeze, a maker of solar- powered attic fans, and American Clay and Ultra-Touch Cotton insulation, both based in New Mexico. He also found Seisco, a manufacturer of tankless water heaters, based in Texas.

The New Orleans Home Builders Association most recently launched Crescent City Green, to help give builders a better guide of what products and materials to use in their homes. The guidelines focus on products that fall into affordable parameters. According to Jon Luther, executive vp of the association, “With the guide-lines, we’re saying if they want the Rolls-Royce of green homes, let’s make it accessible. But to those who just want the entrylevel green home, we need to make it accessible as well.”

Toni Wendel, a green builder with Olde World Builders and Remodelers of New Orleans, said she firmly believes green should start with the promise of saving homeowners money, something sorely needed in a city where the median income hovers around $30,000.

On a recent trip around some damaged areas of New Orleans with HCN, Wendel showed off two of her company’s green building projects in the communities of Gentilly and Lakeview.

“What green should be, what we want to show people green can be, is that you can have this, and it’s going to keep your costs down and it’s going to work for you within your budget,” Wendel said.

Wendel’s designs are traditional New Orleans, with many historic touches. The insides of one home include Southern Pine Council FSC-certified wood (the wood also is termite resistant—a necessity in New Orleans), Crane siding, Bosch Energy Star appliances, tankless water heaters and energy-efficient roofing by Decra. She said her designs put the greatest emphasis on products that are easy to maintain and fit into the budget of an average New Orleans resident. She eschewed some high-tech innovations, such as rooftop solar panels, as not feasible for the average New Orleans homeowner.

On another side of the green spectrum is Make It Right, the Brad Pitt-sponsored group that has tasked itself with rebuilding the Holy Cross neighborhood of the city’s Lower Ninth Ward.

All of the Make It Right Project’s 13 home designs are modern style with high-tech green innovations planned for the interiors. The price of actually building a Make It Right home is notably higher than the median home price in New Orleans (around $214,000) with some designs potentially reaching upwards of $ 300,000. The final price to residents is set to be largely subsidized by donations and other grants.

At a forum featuring Make it Right representatives at the NAHB National Green Building Conference, the group received some criticism. Peter Pfeiffer, an architect with Barley & Pfeiffer Architects of Austin, Texas, expressed doubt that an apparent lack of porch coverings and flat roofs on some designs, coupled with complex solar and water collecting systems, were workable for the average New Orleanian.

“This is of great concern,” he said. “I think it’s a shame, because this process that you went through seems as though it was so time-consuming, and after six months you came up with something so irrelevant.”

Charles Allen, president of the ninth ward’s Holy Cross Neighborhood Coalition, bristled at the criticism. “We in the community find them very relevant,” he replied.

All en discussed the process of securing grants for the green products used in the homes and arranging for training for local contractors on how to maintain the high-tech green addition, such as the solar power cells and rainwater collection systems. And, he said, the home plans were chosen by the residents themselves.

Whatever disagreements come to the surface out of the New Orleans green building experiment, its almost certain to prove as one of the biggest testing grounds for green construction the country has seen.

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