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Green Pioneers 

More and more contractors and do-it-yourselfers are learning the advantages of green building techniques in post-Katrina New Orleans

Even though Julie Groth is rebuilding an old house and not erecting something new, she still feels as though she's entering unexplored territory. The veteran general contractor has remodeled numerous houses in New Orleans, but the single-shotgun house she's rehabbing for Shannan Cvitanovic is her first attempt at going green.

Her pride shows as she points to the walls, which her crew is beginning to insulate with a rain screen system that allows moisture to drain, inhibiting mold inside the wall. Groth will then install polystyrene board and cover it with insulating foam before encasing it all in drywall. Additionally, the home will have a tankless water heater, a dual-flush commode, formaldehyde-free cabinets and Energy Star appliances.

Groth's pride is justifiable. Months of study, consulting with building scientists and talking with preservation experts made the building she's renovating a more environmentally conscious and energy-efficient home — and she had to do it from scratch. Thanks to this experience, the next home she remodels will take far less time. Meanwhile, she's happy to share her experience with anyone who wants to listen.

'If you're going to do this, I have numbers for all of this," Groth says. "Do it right and it's affordable. It might cost you more up front, but there's a monthly savings. Sometimes, it doesn't cost you more up front."

Groth is one of many local green pioneers: New Orleanians who are trailblazing a novel way of construction and reconstruction that takes into account the changing climate from both an environmental and economic standpoint. Their ranks are growing so fast that when it became known that Gambit Weekly was producing a "green issue," we were inundated with suggestions for interviews, organizations to include and other requests. Those featured here are but a sample of what one city official describes as a "groundswell."

They come from various sectors — government, business, nonprofit groups, educators and charitable organizations — but their paths cross often as they form partnerships and alliances to create a stronger and more sustainable New Orleans.

Matt Petersen, president of Global Green USA, a national environmental organization and the U.S. affiliate of Green Cross International, realized as he watched television reports of Hurricane Katrina that "we have a moral responsibility to respond." As early as mid-September 2005, Petersen and his associates put together a plan for opening a Global Green office in New Orleans.

By first passing the hat around at Global Green headquarters for donations and then receiving funds from the Home Depot Foundation and other donors, Global Green opened the New Orleans office in January 2006 and hired Beth Galante, an environmental law attorney who was rebuilding her own Uptown home, as its executive director. The office serves as a resource center for residents looking for individual consultation on such nuts-and-bolt decisions as purchasing Energy Star appliances (a label that designates a product as meeting energy efficiency guidelines set by the federal government), how to insulate a home, getting the most out of heating and air conditioning systems and lowering monthly utility costs.

Meanwhile, Petersen was making the rounds of charity conferences looking for a way to raise enough funds to spark a project that could showcase a vibrant, healthy, green community. Petersen sat next to actor Brad Pitt at the 2005 Clinton Climate Initiative in New York City and the two discussed ways to make the vision a reality. In the summer of 2006, Global Green and Pitt sponsored an international competition to design a net-zero energy affordable development (housing that produces as much energy as it consumes) in the Holy Cross neighborhood. Of 125 entries, the design jury, which included Global Green, Pitt as chairperson, the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association and area residents, selected Workshop/APD as the winning design firm.

When the Holy Cross project is completed, there will be five single-family homes, an 18-unit apartment complex and a community center that will provide an array of services, including childcare. According to Petersen, the budget for the project is roughly $10 million and will incorporate much of what Global Green has learned about green construction. For example, breaking ground on the project's site meant decontaminating the soil, then using Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood (wood from forests that follow certifiable forestry practices) for the homes. The first house will be completed this month, and Galante says she's satisfied with the results.

'The house is reflective of a New Orleans shotgun, camelback, but Norm Abrams of This Old House (PBS television show) busted me with "now this is a very liberal interpretation,' which is true," Galante admits. "It's a very liberal interpretation, but it is a result of a design competition."

Elsewhere in the Lower Ninth Ward, the Make It Right Foundation (MIR) didn't conduct a competition, but it did select 13 architectural firms to create designs for the 150 homes that the foundation will construct near the site of Katrina's floodwall breach. Pitt kick started MIR at the 2007 Clinton Global Initiative by announcing a $5 million donation, which was matched by film producer Steve Bing. The selected firms are following the concepts of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, a book by chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough. The book promotes "eco-effectiveness," which means using materials that eventually can return to the biological cycle in a cost-efficient manner. For example, it's not recycling wood but putting it back into the ground to nourish new trees.

Some of the ways that cradle-to-cradle thinking will manifest itself are in the buildings' water and heating systems. Rainwater will be harvested on the properties by collecting it in cisterns and then using it for plants and, hopefully, toilets (current state building code doesn't allow for this, which supersedes the city code that does allow for it). Grey water, which is household wastewater that hasn't been contaminated by a commode, will be another source. Solar panels on south-facing roofs will supply up to 90 percent of the houses' energy requirements.

MIR continues to raise money for the project through its Web site, where people can purchase inexpensive, individual pieces like ceiling fans, thermostats, or big-ticket items like solar panels. Tom Darden, MIR's director, says MIR currently has funds to build 80 of the 150 proposed homes and that the first batch of 20 should be completed by Katrina's third anniversary. The new homes should be much more durable than the previous ones, he says. For instance, there won't be any slab foundations. Pilings will be driven 30 to 50 feet in the ground, and the minimum elevation for the ground floor will be 5 feet above grade. Darden says the houses will be rated to handle winds of up to 130 mph.

John Klingman, a professor of architecture at Tulane University, says the issue of durability is sometimes overlooked when building sustainable architecture. "People often think of sustainability in terms of energy use and energy efficiency, which is part of it," Klingman explains, "but there's really three parts. The second one is creating a healthy and supportive environment for people, but the third one is doing things for the long term."

Both Global Green and MIR are focusing on low-income, affordable housing, but cost remains a factor. The two organizations have a goal of building houses for roughly $150,000 each. While a $150,000 mortgage isn't affordable for most low-income homeowners, MIR and Global Green are examining ways to help them cover that gap.

Those who can afford a $150,000 home can look at these projects as examples of affordable green construction. Darden cautions, however, that some of the improvements they're implementing are so new that prices might seem abnormally high at first. "There are a few things that are not replicable or affordable," he says. "We'll do it anyway as a model, and prices will drop on items. And energy prices will rise (in the future), making it more and more relevant."

One of those price-prohibitive items, Klingman notes, is a solar energy system. Solar panels can cost as much as $30,000 for the large systems that MIR plans to install. Still, with constantly rising oil prices and the greenhouse gases that fossil fuels emit, there had to be a way to encourage the use of solar energy by making it more affordable. Better insulation is one alternative — it reduces fossil fuel usage and costs less than solar panels. But what about solar energy as a long-term solution?

The Louisiana Legislature provided the answer.

A bill by state Sen. Nick Gautreaux (D-Meaux) allows Louisianans to recoup 50 percent in refundable tax credits on the first $25,000 spent on an alternative energy system (wind or solar), starting this year. Additionally, the federal government offers a 30 percent tax credit, up to $2,000, for the installation of solar panels. Property owners can use both the federal and state tax incentives.

Another area in which public policy can make an environmental difference is the construction of low-income affordable rental units. Developers of such apartments use federal tax credits to secure construction loans. To secure the tax credits, developers have to qualify through a state application process. Petersen says Global Green recognized early on that it needed to advocate on a state level to insert green incentives into the application process. "They're so competitive that if you put incentives in these, [it's] more likely the applicants (developers) are going to put these elements into their plans."

Will Bradshaw, a local green development specialist, came to New Orleans in November 2005 as a consultant for a charitable organization that hoped to reconstruct homes in the city. That group, the Riggio Foundation, headed by Barnes & Noble founder Leonard Riggio, recently pledged $20 million to rebuild houses in Gentilly. Bradshaw had spent the previous four years researching the affordability of green construction and was the lead author on a seminal report that studied numerous green low-income housing developments across the country. He and his team looked at the projects from both a developer's perspective and a resident's perspective.

His conclusion? "The residents always do better," Bradshaw says.

The report's rationale is simple: Residents are healthier when their homes are built green. Their air quality is better (more air flowing in the apartments), the use of low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds, which can be toxic to the environment and humans) paints means fewer toxins, and residents have lower utility bills. Next to rent, utilities are renters' highest monthly bills. Overall, Bradshaw says, "They're happier and they like it more."

According to Bradshaw's report, developers don't always come out ahead. Often, developers' financial outcomes depend on their ability to secure philanthropic awards for "green" costs, how long they hold on to the building (the longer the better) and how experienced they are in environmentally conscious construction. Locally, the efforts of Global Green, grants from groups such as Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit organization that specializes in financing affordable housing, and an increased amount of low-income housing tax credits give area developers a fighting chance to gain "green" experience and turn a profit.

Gulf Opportunity Zone ('GO Zone") tax credits provided $56.7 million for low-income housing tax credits for the years 2007 and 2008. When combined with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's annual allocation of $8.3 million to Louisiana for low-income housing tax credits, developers can apply for part of the more than $65 million available in tax credits. Through the lobbying efforts of Global Green and Enterprise, grant applications now include a section on green construction, written in part by Global Green, which emphasizes "sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality —

At City Hall, Dr. Earthea Nance, director of infrastructure and environmental planning for the Office of Recovery Development Administration, and Wynecta Fisher, director of the Mayor's Office of Environmental Affairs, have been leading the effort to promote greener and more sustainable construction. Nance, who has extensive experience as an environmental engineer and holds a doctor's degree in environmental planning and management, says the city's plans involve public/private partnerships and revolve around five main components:

Public outreach,

Creating incentives for public and private development for solar and alternative energy,

Modifications in the city building code to promote solar energy,

Attracting suppliers and manufacturers to the area by assembling a green work force, and

Partnering with Global Green on a solar schools project.

To facilitate these goals, Mayor Ray Nagin directed Nance and her staff to put together the "GreeNOLA Road Map: A Strategy For a Sustainable New Orleans."

The first step, which includes starting a Green Council, a city environmental conservation policy and the Green Building Program ordinance, has already been taken. The council includes various city department heads. As Fisher explains, "They're in charge of taking the road map and actually implementing it into their offices." For example, when the Public Works Department needs to purchase paper tickets for parking attendants, the purchasing department will look for tickets made from recyclable materials.

Last October, the City Council approved the Green Building Program, which includes putting together "New Orleans-specific green standards," certification criteria and goals for sustainable construction and developing a comprehensive unified energy policy for the city.

Step two of the road map calls for hiring a chief energy officer and a chief environmental officer. Nance says her office has begun interviewing prospective candidates.

Funding for the road map comes from the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, which awarded $1.14 million to the mayor's green plan. The city also will receive a two-year, $200,000 Solar America City grant. Global Green and the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a nonprofit organization, helped finance the city's required match for the grant. Part of the grant funds will be used to hire a solar panel specialist in the city's Office of Safety and Permits and two other specialists. Global Green's Galante says the positions will substantially improve the city's ability to keep up with contractors and developers who want to go green.

'The city doesn't have staff with knowledge about green building techniques or permitting needs," Galante says. "They have limited capacity. And of course they have the weight of the world on them, trying to get the city rebuilt. So green building isn't on the forefront of what they're working on."

Galante adds that the city has been very receptive to ideas and suggestions. She cited the solar city grant as an example. The city and Global Green have continued their partnership, and some of the grant funds will be spent on Global Green's "Green Seeds" program, which is retrofitting five area schools with energy- and water-saving improvements as well as air quality improvements. It will select two schools to receive $350,000 each to become high-performance, showcase green schools. The Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund awarded the program $2 million.

Besides providing consulting services for the Riggio project, Bradshaw is exploring the commercial side of green construction. He and his business partner, Reuben Teague, founded Green Coast Enterprises and currently have under construction a two-building project, The Arabella, on Fortin Street across from the Fair Grounds Race Course. Bradshaw is taking much of what he has learned about green building and incorporating it into The Arabella.

Before beginning construction, the two had the soil tested to determine the best foundation to keep the buildings from settling like many old homes in New Orleans. The structures were then framed using steel studs, which provide strength against wind and ground movement. Moreover, termites don't eat steel.

The walls are sheet metal with a concrete laminate on the outside, which gives the buildings some flexibility and provides good insulation. Bradshaw and Teague are aiming to be 40 percent above code for energy conservation, so they gave the building additional insulation — 3 inches of spray foam — and the entire structure is wrapped in a foil-like radiant/vapor barrier similar to materials used in drink coolers.

They enthusiastically describe their creation as "a Sherman tank."

That's not to say the two buildings resemble military tanks. With architectural assistance from FutureProof, Bradshaw and Teague chose the classic Greek Revival style — long, rectangular two-story homes with covered front porches on both levels — which includes high ceilings, window transoms for increased airflow and ceiling fans. It's exactly how architects of the past dealt with New Orleans' climate.

Bradshaw says construction costs, approximately $120 per square foot, are in line with similar green building projects. He adds that affordability was part of what he and Teague were aiming for. "This whole concept of rebuilding is not about being elitist or fancy," Bradshaw says. "It's common sense in a lot of ways. This is what people need to be doing — it's safer, more affordable and it lasts longer."

Katrina and Carmelo Turillo, owners of La Divina Gelateria on Magazine Street, had some of those same thoughts in mind when they renovated their dessert shop. They installed three-phase electrical equipment to reduce the amount of electricity they use, skylights for natural light, ultra-energy-efficient appliances, increased insulation and natural materials — quarry tile, slate, porcelain, reclaimed lumber and stainless steel — as well as other measures to ensure their store was, as Carmelo puts it, "green/sustainable."

The Turillos didn't just renovate green; they are operating green as well. They serve their food on real plates and bowls and with cutlery to reduce waste. To-go orders are packed in biodegradable products. The owners use organic ingredients whenever possible and compost their kitchen scraps and coffee grinds. The couple says they learned much of this from living in Madrid, Spain, where people did more than just recycle trash in order to conserve natural resources. They admit that these methods cost a little more, but the extra expense is worth it.

'What it ultimately comes down to for us as business owners is that this is the right thing to do," says Katrina Turillo.

Julie Groth couldn't agree more. Although she has put much more research into her current shotgun house than previous projects, the hard work has convinced her that going green is the right way to go in rebuilding New Orleans. She has taken a number of courses in green construction and recently became one of the first contractors in the New Orleans area to be designated by the National Association of Home Builders as a Certified Green Professional.

In fact, Groth not only wants to share the numbers on her project but also to roll up her sleeves and show others how they can do it themselves. She is teaching a class at Tulane University's Newcomb College Institute titled "Sophie the Riveter: Women Rebuilding New Orleans." During the course, students learn basic construction skills and green building techniques.

Groth thus is increasing her own skills as a contractor and passing on what she's learned — preparing the next wave of green pioneers.

click to enlarge This is the first of five single-family homes that Global Green is building in the Holy Cross neighborhood using sustainable construction techniques. The design, a "loose interpretaton' of a New Orleans shotgun was chosen from 125 entries submitted for a Global Green competition.
  • This is the first of five single-family homes that Global Green is building in the Holy Cross neighborhood using sustainable construction techniques. The design, a "loose interpretaton' of a New Orleans shotgun was chosen from 125 entries submitted for a Global Green competition.
click to enlarge Contractor Julie Groth has learned much about green building since taking on the renovation of this house for homeowner Shannan Cvitanovic. The walls are insulated with a rain screen system that allows moisture to drain, which inhibits mold from growing inside the wall. The home also will have a dual-flush commode, formaldehyde-free cabinets and energy-efficient appliances. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • Contractor Julie Groth has learned much about green building since taking on the renovation of this house for homeowner Shannan Cvitanovic. The walls are insulated with a rain screen system that allows moisture to drain, which inhibits mold from growing inside the wall. The home also will have a dual-flush commode, formaldehyde-free cabinets and energy-efficient appliances.
click to enlarge The FutureProof team of (l-r) J.O. Evans III, Molly Buchenberger, Nicolai Alatzas and Ross Karsen designed The Arabella buildings in the Greek Revival style in keeping with the architecture of the area. They are pictured here in the rear of the two-story buildings.
  • The FutureProof team of (l-r) J.O. Evans III, Molly Buchenberger, Nicolai Alatzas and Ross Karsen designed The Arabella buildings in the Greek Revival style in keeping with the architecture of the area. They are pictured here in the rear of the two-story buildings.
click to enlarge Green development specialist Will Bradshaw (right) and business partner Reuben Teague founded Green Coast Entrerprises to explore the investment possibilities of sustainable building. They are developing The Arabella near the Fair Grounds Race Course, in which Bradshaw took his knowledge about green construction practices and turned it into a commercial venture.
  • Green development specialist Will Bradshaw (right) and business partner Reuben Teague founded Green Coast Entrerprises to explore the investment possibilities of sustainable building. They are developing The Arabella near the Fair Grounds Race Course, in which Bradshaw took his knowledge about green construction practices and turned it into a commercial venture.
click to enlarge Make It Right Foundation Director Tom Darden lounges among models and architectural drawings of the 150 houses the foundation plans to construct near the floodwall breach in the Lower Ninth Ward.
  • Make It Right Foundation Director Tom Darden lounges among models and architectural drawings of the 150 houses the foundation plans to construct near the floodwall breach in the Lower Ninth Ward.
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