“Refusal to Compromise Drives Innovation”: Make It Right
Building affordable houses that are fast to construct, ready for storms, LEED-platinum-certified, and beautiful is a lofty goal that is among the most optimistic outcomes of Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans – even as the rising levels of the Mississippi river and the release of enormous volumes of water into the Morganza spillway yesterday to save the cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge make new news.
Since 2007, 75 houses of a planned 150 have been built in the Lower Ninth Ward under the rubric of Make It Right - an initiative famously started by Brad Pitt, actor and social entrepreneur in November 2005, three months after Hurricane Katrina. The Lower Ninth, in the direct path of the levee failures, was a catastrophic storm casualty with 4000 houses lost and tens of thousands of residents displaced. Make It Right, working at inception with Global Green, convened 13 local, national and international architecture firms and implemented a novel funding mechanism to make affordable loans possible for part of a group of 248 homeowners from a 12-block neighborhood radius.
The 75 new houses themselves are colorful, modular – and replicable. With the caution that “there is still a lot of work to be done,” Make It Right executive director Tom Darden on May 12th moderated an AIA conference panel that joined project participants Kathy Grove of McDonough + Co. in Charlottesville, Virginia, with Alejandra Lillo formerly of GRAFT in Los Angeles, and Charles Allen, III, the New Orleans mayor’s office director of environmental affairs,who was the Holy Cross neighborhood association president in 2005.
(Brad Pitt had first visited New Orleans when he made Interview with the Vampire, and lived with his wife Angelina Jolie and their children in the French Quarter as the project got under way in 2006 and 2007.)
Allen said that in a neighborhood that pre-Katrina had had 70,000 residents, there were 50 neighborhood members ready to participate beginning in 11/06 – when, with Pitt present, they all signed memoranda of agreement to kick off a process that would ask the community to identify what was important, valuable and meaningful in their homes.
“The question of ‘what really is critical regionalism?’ was framed by the charrette process,” said Kathy Grove. Grove also noted that those architects who could explain their work in ways to which people could relate had success in community, underscoring the impact of empathic communications.
Among the lessons learned: There was not one New Orleans style to graft onto the Lower Ninth – for example, that of the well-known French quarter that influenced a first design iteration by architect David Adjaye.
Hence, to cement community-building through the charrette process, explained Alejandra Lillo, central player Brad Pitt made the architects recuse themselves from commenting on peers’ designs. Instead, community members were the jury – and today the contemporary styles visible across the low-lying streets include storybook elements of affordable-building such as modular panels, energy-efficiency (resulting in LEED-platinum status), and a contemporary shotgun house vernacular, with front porches, shade, and storm-ready elevations. Charles Allen described the impact of his father’s advice on a community that sometimes saw the new as far-out: “He commented that in 40 years these styles will be historic. That’s so practical.”
The building costs of the houses are around $130/square foot and are achieved through “a soft-second mortgage” or forgivable 15-year loan to fill the gap between most families ability to pay $75,000- $100,000 and the houses’ average price of $150k, said Tom Darden. While Make It Right typically receives calls from other areas of the world affected by catastrophe, Grove noted that there are things very specific to Make It Right: an owner-based lot size; multiple different construction types and materials; and a requirement for teams working on affordable housing in situ to be able to work with public officials such as code enforcers to help them understand new architectural modules. Tom Darden concluded that sometimes Make It Right’s experiences even challenge notions such as the FEMA trailer: “Do you even need temporary housing or can you go straight to permanent (architecture)?” he asked.