The big green easy

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans five years ago, the devastation was heartbreaking. Residents lost homes, schools, and churches, and in some cases entire neighborhoods were destroyed. The city was in ruins by the time the water finally receded, leaving the task of rebuilding to those whose homes and livelihoods had been swept away by the massive storm. The Crescent City slowly but surely crept back to life, and in the process, New Orleans 2.0 is becoming better, stronger, and greener.

There are a number of organizations working to help New Orleans think smarter and greener as residents rebuild their homes, keeping in mind that installing rooftop solar panels or backyard wind turbines isn’t realistic for most people, and that simple is better.

Go Green NOLA encourages homebuilders to think small, since smaller homes use less energy. The group also makes suggestions such as installing windows and insulation systems with special attention to local weather and climate””think: humidity, and lots of it””and using shade trees and other landscaping to help beat back the southern sun. The organization’s web site has a number of resources to help residents make the right choices for the environment.

Global Green USA’s Build it Back Green program has helped set the standard for green redevelopment in the Big Easy. The group provides information and technical assistance to New Orleans homeowners and small rental property owners who have received Road Home Grants so that they can rebuild in an affordable and sustainable manner. They offer resources ranging from product information and how-to tips on sustainable insulation, lighting, and water and sewage systems, to lists of vendors and contractors who are green friendly. They even have a resource center where people can go to see samples of environmentally friendly building materials or get one-on-one green building consultations.

Finally, no article about the green rebuilding of New Orleans would be complete without mention of the city’s hunkiest advocate: Brad Pitt. The actor founded Make it Right after touring the still totally deserted Lower Ninth Ward two years after Katrina hit. He pledged to help build 150 green and storm resistant homes in the neighborhood.

Twenty-one acclaimed architects have donated their designs for single-family homes and duplexes, and the U.S. Green Building Council calls the area the largest, greenest neighborhood of single-family homes in the country. In addition to helping the 150 families who move into new homes, Make it Right is testing and implementing new construction techniques, technologies, and materials that will make green, storm resistant homes affordable and broadly available to working families across the country.

New Orleans still has a long way to go to in the rebuilding process, but with the help of organizations like these and others, the city stands a real chance of making a strong””and green””comeback.

This is a CAP cross-post.

22 Responses to The big green easy

  1. Colorado Bob says:

    A study by a German military think tank has analyzed how “peak oil” might change the global economy. The internal draft document — leaked on the Internet — shows for the first time how carefully the German government has considered a potential energy crisis.,1518,715138,00.html

  2. Leif says:

    I am friends with an Elder from the Skokomish Nation here in the NW. I turned him on to this sight and it has been very valuable to him in his efforts to bring climate awareness to the tribe. The practical knowledge like the links above are invaluable in their efforts to improve the community as they upgrade homes and infrastructure. Reading CP is now even in his “job description.” Even thou the climate is different than the Big Easy, contacts and technology often are interchangeable.

    Two Palms Up.


    [JR: Thanks!]

  3. mike roddy says:

    The best thing they could do in New Orleans is to prohibit construction from two by fours and formaldehyde based plywood and OSB. These products warp and degrade in that climate, requiring constant maintenance and eventual demolition. That’s one reason that inner New Orleans became section 8 housing in the first place, since the homes were so badly degraded by the climate.

    Inert materials are called for, either light gauge steel, CMU block, or reinforced concrete. The cost premium is minimal: framing materials are less than 10% of hard construction costs, so a 20% premium for wood or concrete = 2% more- for a house that will last for centuries instead of a few decades.

  4. mike roddy says:

    correction, a 20% premium for steel or concrete.

  5. Lewis C says:

    Mike –

    given the ecological costs of concrete and rust-proof steel alloys, it’s surely worth noting that good quality wood can last for centuries if it is well assembled, as in the old part of New Orleans ?

    While I’m all for conserving remaining old forests, switching construction from productive forestry yields to the outputs of concrete plants and steel foundries is surely a step away from sustainability ?

    With regard to the use of absurdly short-lived composite materials such as plywood and chip-beams etc, I agree with you entirely.



  6. Bob Wallace says:

    I keep thinking about how many of the newly designed homes are being built on stilts high above the ground. I understand why it is desirable to put the valuable part of the house above future flood levels, but I get concerned about the loss of community for those seniors and other people who are not going to go up and down all those stairs any more often than necessary.

    What is the possibility of including an inexpensive elevator? Electric winches are not really expensive. A winch capable of pulling 1,000 pounds can be had for as little as $300. It would seem that a ‘chair lift’ with all the safety features could be installed for a thousand dollars or so.

    Design the houses so that a chair lift could be easily installed. (Create the space and make the framing adequately strong.)

    Then turn that ‘under the house’ into living space. A great big screened room comes to mind. Hinge the screen panels at the top so that they could be stored away under the house when storms threaten.

    People could use ‘lawn furniture’ – stuff easily moved upstairs if necessary. Install a dumbwaiter for moving food/etc. up and down easily. (Folks with limited ability should get an electric dumbwaiter.)

    Small houses are a great idea for conservation. But make them more livable by utilizing the area under the house.

  7. Bob Wallace says:

    Lewis – “old” New Orleans has a major problem caused by Formosan termites.

    It could well be that properly chosen composites might be a better option than natural wood in this case. Beams formulated with something to make them unattractive to termites might last longer than wooden beams.

    Steel studs might be a much better, longer lasting option than wood 2x4s.

  8. papa zita says:

    Better, stronger, greener, and whiter!

  9. Leif says:

    …” it’s surely worth noting that good quality wood can last for centuries”… Lewis C @5.

    While that is true for good quality old growth, todays quickly grown second growth is a mere shadow of old growth quality. I am a retired boat builder and one of the problems that drove me to different media was getting quality wood. I have paid top dime for “quality” old growth only to have it trashed in ten years or less. Quality control became impossible to ascertain. Some suppliers would replace the product but even then that would amount 10 to 25% of the job, which would then leave me holding the bag. Second growth materials would not even be considered as a marine environment would trash it out in a few years. Very frustrating.

  10. Bob Wallace says:

    Leif – I live in Redwood country. What we’re seeing is that second growth redwood does not develop redwood’s rot resistance until it is 80-200 years old.

    I have cousins in the Southeast who are home builders. They quit using CA redwood for decks and other outdoor uses several years ago as they found that the (heart) redwood they were installing “trashed in ten years or less”.

    They moved to cypress, but I would imagine that’s largely used up by now. I haven’t heard from them for a while, I’d guess they are now building decks with pressure treated frames and composite surfaces.

  11. Lewis C says:

    Leif – I commiserate with your difficulties as a boatbuilder in finding well grown 2nd growth lumber. My own first career was as a wheelwright and carriage-builder, (my family’s trade for many generations) in which the woods are subject to extreme stresses and are expected to last up to a century.

    Given that there has hardly been any old-growth timber harvested in western Europe for a long time, we have a clear indication that the quality of forest management is a key determinant on the quality of lumber available. For instance, both the over-dense planting of new stands, and the folly of chemical fertilization, and the stresses of acid rainfall and ozone pollution, all diminish the final quality of the lumber produced.

    For gig-wheel spokes, which face the highest of stress per unit of cross section area of any part of a vehicle, I never saw anything to beat upland hedge-grown oak on medium soil, where the tree is exposed to the winds and has to develop great resilience to survive.

    The only way I found to ensure quality control, (for there is certainly much fast grown trash being sold here) was to buy trunks from reputable forestry holdings and bring a woodmizer to them, which also saved some costs.

    Sadly it appears that there are several billions of tonnes of old-growth North American forests that are being hit by various insect pest booms and will have to come down or be left to burn. I’d strongly urge that their timber should be utilized wherever possible in long-term construction, rather than being degraded to paper-pulp and wasted in days.

    In terms of maximizing that timber’s service, beside rotproofing (preferably with the creosote output of the wastes’ processing) the simple expedients of masonry foundations, ground floor and primary walls will greatly reduce degradation by moisture and insect attack.

    The alternative, of sponsoring additional coal mining and alloy-steel production and milling in China, and its shipping to Nola for framing, rafters, floors etc, seems a poor prospect, not least from the point of view of the forests that are being hit by climate destabilization.



    PS: I still really envy American craftsmen their hickory !

  12. Bob Wallace says:

    Lewis – Read up on Formosan termites. They eat through concrete in order to get to the wood.

    From my link above…

    “Even more frightening, this six-legged sneak is legendary for penetrating cement, brick, plastic, and other obstacles to get to food or water sources.”

  13. Leif says:

    There is a lot to say about quality timber harvest deterioration. The Raygun administration opened the old growth harvest and the Japanese, flush with US cash they bought shiploads of old growth here in the NW. That drove the price up by 3 or 4 times. My understanding is that most logs went into long term storage. The high cost brought in speculators and less than honest harvesters. etc. Quality went to hell, high price prevented fisherman from doing needed maintenance, and on and on. Today the NW fleet is a sorry state compared to the fleet of old.

    Very similar to farmers exhausting the land and moving on to fresh land only to find that GOOD land is no more and they have left a trail of exhausted, eroded land in their wake. This practice has tumbled civilization, including the Romans and before, and modern civilization is on the cusp of repeating the movie. As if we did not have enough to ponder. Read “Dirt, The Erosion of Civilizations” by David Montgomery. It is as disheartening as AGW.

  14. David B. Benson says:

    Inside Munich Re, the World’s Risk Center,1518,715053,00.html
    Recommended readings, especially on page 3.

  15. Louis Hooffstetter says:

    I live in a beach community on the east coast, but have worked in and around New Orleans for seven years (from about two years before Katrina until the present). In my opinion, a HUGE problem is the failure of the Federal Flood Insurance Program to establish and enforce uniform flood regulations in south Louisiana. Before Katrina, nearly all construction in the New Orleans area (houses, businesses, apartments, you name it) was built behind levees at nearly ground level (several feet below sea level). The Federal Flood Insurance Program should have strongly discouraged this by refusing to provide coverage for this irresponsible construction behavior, but they didn’t. The Federal Government failed to see the inevitable New Orleans flood, like they failed to see the Sub Prime mortgage crisis. Immediately following Katrina, Federal Flood Insurance premiums skyrocketed. In my case, my premiums tripled, despite the fact that my house (on pilings 15′ above sea level) survived a direct hit from Hurricane Hugo with little damage. This money pool was used to restore the ‘below sea level’ construction, but to date, only a small percentage of the buildings have been raised above flood level; and most never will be, but they will continue to be covered under our Federal Flood Insurance Program.

    Furthermore, following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, flood maps (based solely on elevation) were published for much of south Lousiana. In many areas, residents then pressured local politicians to change the maps so their homes would not be in ‘flood prone’ areas. Can politicians physically raise ground elevations in areas subsiding at rates of 1″ to 6″ per year? No. But they can bow to pressure (or corruption) and change the maps so that the same catastrophe is guaranteed to happen again in the future.

    This is an inexcusable problem with our Federal Flood Insurance Program. On east coast barrier islands, we seem to have learned the lesson that good building codes can prevent losses. But in some areas, we pay to restore the same flooded properties over, and over, and over again. This has to stop!!

  16. Lewis C says:

    David at 14 –

    Well recommended.
    For those who don’t know the firm, Munich Re has long been by far the most discreet and effective of messengers for industry to accept the reality of climate destabilization.

    As the leading re-insurance company (i.e. it sets rates at which insurance companies can insure their own liabilities) it will lose business if its calculation of weather risks are too high and it charges more than it needs to. In reality its business has grown steadily since it first recognised a climate change component in the risks it was re-insuring back in the ’70s.

    That’s how long industry has been learning that the risk is real, and how long it’s been insuring against its impacts on commercial operations.

    In another interview recently, Peter Hoppe described how the number of extreme weather events per year globally has trebled since 1980, (i.e. a ~3.73% exponent, doubling in ~19 years) but how over the same period the annual global economic damages (including uninsured damages) caused by extreme weather has been rising at over 6%/yr, i.e. doubling about each 12 years.

    This neatly describes both the rising frequency and the intensification of extreme weather impacts in unequivocal mathematical terms. If the trends held for the next 35 years as they have for the last 30 years, then by 2045 the number of extreme weather events per year would have risen over 10-fold, but their economic damages would have risen over 44-fold.

    With this year’s economic losses from weather extremes spiking sharply, with the loss of a third of the Russian grain harvest plus ~$300Bn of its forestry resources, alongside >650,000 houses in China plus crops, farmland and infrastructure, alongside the catastrophe in Pakistan, plus the new ‘ordinary’ smaller scale mayhem worldwide,
    it would be very interesting to hear Hoppe’s thoughts on the possibility of a non-linear intensification of climate destabilization impacts as critical thresholds are reached in atmospheric circulation and the hydrocycle.



  17. Bob Wallace says:

    Lewis #16 – this is very interesting information. It deserves a wider audience. Perhaps you and/or Joe could do a blog piece on extreme weather and the insurance industry.

  18. Richard Brenne says:

    The culture, history and diversity of New Orleans are all epic, and so it is extremely sad that the city does not have hundreds of years – or even a hundred years – in its future.

    Much of it is below sea level, the land is naturally subsiding, and subsidence is accelerating due to the weight of the city, the pumping of water, natural gas and oil. The bayous that are New Orleans primary protection from hurricane storm surge are being lost because levees don’t allow the Mississippi River to flood the bayous with silt, the bayous have been decimated by thousands of miles of canals for shipping and to install and maintain oil and natural gas wells and pipelines, nutrias are eating up to 25,000 acres of marshland a year, and now the BP oil spill will probably further the killing of grasses and marsh.

    All this while sea levels will probably rise one to two meters by 2100, and hurricanes are probably intensifying.

    It is said to say for such a great and historic city, and heartbreaking for all the many residents who have had such a unique home, often for many generations, but probably the best we can hope for is a sea wall around the French Quarter, which averages about 7 feet above sea level.

    With dwindling resources, investing them in places almost certain not to survive the century is something we have to think about. In fact all the building right on the entire Gulf and much of the Atlantic coast in hurricane-prone areas is questionable, especially when rich people want the rest of us to subsidize their lifestyles through insurance premiums and FEMA.

    Rebuilding anything more than once in a small number of decades is not the best use of resources and not something the world or nation can afford – it is also one of the least green things one can do. Some sad, but hopefully science-based decisions are going to need to be made in New Orleans.

  19. Leif says:

    Many of the new homes in New Orleans are being built on pilings which will make them easy to move Richard.

  20. Bob Wallace says:

    Additionally, there will be significant work done to rebuild/restore the natural surge barriers.

    That’s not to say that New Orleans will exist where it is a thousand years from now. The old New Orleans culture is most likely already damaged to the point where it will die off in a very few decades even without further help by man or nature.

    There will be less and less desire to maintain New Orleans because of its vibrant culture. It will be just one more place which used to be important.

    As Leif suggests, the stilt houses may well be moved inland. The ‘island of New Orleans’ will carry on as a tourist destination after most of the population has moved elsewhere.

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  22. Byron Smith says:

    I second #18. Decisions about what to preserve and what to abandon are very difficult ones, but I think they will become increasingly common.