Let’s be honest. Brad Pitt was a big draw for tonight’s special session on infrastructure, called “Building a Better Future – A Progress Report on Making It Right in New Orleans.”
But once you realize what his Make It Right Foundation is all about, suddenly, Brad’s star power becomes less interesting. Instead, you’re intrigued more by the people of New Orleans living and thriving in the Lower 9th Ward, thanks to the construction of new energy-efficient, sustainable houses.
Take Dierdra Taylor, a Make It Right homeowner and hospice worker, who tells the story about how she bought a brand new home, only 13 months old, and “Katrina washed it completely away.” She thought she’d never return to her old neighborhood, which was unlivable for months after the storm “because of all the bodies that were there.”
But now, thanks to the Make It Right Foundation, Dierdra said she and her family live in a 4-bedroom, 2-bathroom house worth $250,000, for low monthly payments of only $400 a month. Her lighting bill is $50 per month. Pitt said the average utility bill for Make It Right homeowners is $35, and the lowest bill has been $8 — zero for electricity and $8 for administrative and processing fees.
“That’s a blessing for me because now I can give my kids some of things they never had,” Dierdra said. “My daughter’s in dance school; my son wants to play soccer and karate.” She tells another anecdote about how her 16-year-old daughter used to have asthma, but ever since moving into the new house, she’s breathing better, and they haven’t had to refill her medical prescription in months.
Personal stories like Dierdra’s make the story of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina so compelling. The subject of “infrastructure” — which can seem abstract and technical — suddenly becomes synonymous with familiar notions of “home” and “community.”
“The Lower 9th Ward was a desert; there was nothing there,” Dierdra said. “Now we have a community. There are people coming all around, watching the rebuilding process. It’s awesome.”
Her enthusiasm dominated the panel discussion, finally bringing some personality to a four-day event that was too often characterized by repetition, self-congratulating and cliches.
“I don’t know everything about ‘green global’ [she's probably referring to Global Green, a partner of Make It Right] – I’ll leave that to Mr. Pitt and President Clinton — but all I know is I have a beautiful home. I have wonderful gadgets in there! Let me tell you about my dual-flush commode!”
Besides drawing laughter from the audience about her hi-tech toilet, Dierdra exemplifies the goal of Brad Pitt’s foundation, which is to provide safe, green, beautiful and affordable homes to people who thought they could never have a real home again. (Read Pitt’s original CGI commitment here, made in 2007.)
Tom Darden, the executive director of Make It Right, said that traditionally, those four principles of design can contradict each other, with affordability usually sacrificed. “If you’re rich, you can get an architect to design an amazing house and it can be LEED Platinum and it’s not that hard,” he said. “The challenge was how to make it affordable. We had to figure that out. We couldn’t do anything like drop a bunch of really expensive houses in the neighborhood that couldn’t be replicated, where lessons couldn’t be learned and shared in the neighborhood, in New Orleans, and perhaps, around the rest of the world.”
Make It Right demonstratedsthat it is possible to build a beautiful LEED Platinum building — using the principles of Cradle to Cradle design — at the same (or lower) cost of a conventional building.
President Clinton said, “If they can do it in New Orleans, we ought to follow their lead.”
Here are some of the cost-effective building strategies that were used to achieve Brad Pitt’s vision:
- maximizing air flow throughout the house
- shading and daylighting to preserve energy
- experimenting with modular, panelized and stick-build construction, to see which is the most cost-effective and energy-efficient
- convening teams of experts to improve the efficiency of all systems, like heating/cooling, foundation and solar panels
- saving resources and money, for example, by building wall sections that use 30 percent fewer materials but are five times stronger than minimum requirements
One strategy that goes beyond bricks and mortar is education. Make It Right teaches local contractors about new and unfamiliar building materials, thus promoting accurate price quotes and helping to lower final costs for the consumer.
Majora Carter, who was seated in the audience, will be working with the foundation on a workforce development strategy, which she has been so successful doing in places like the South Bronx, where she grew up. “Alleviating povery and remediating environment: we have to do both of those things at the same time,” she said.
Darden concluded: “This is not hard. This is easy and can be replicated anywhere.”
Make It Right, so far, has only built 13 homes. Its goal is to build 150. It’s a small-scale case study but has the potential to inspire similar housing developments around the world.
“This is a premiere template for how we will build our communities for our future,” Pitt said. “The Make It Right model should work in any climate, any condition, any culture around the world. We remain dedicated to New Orleans, but we would like to take this out to a wider spectrum, in the United States and abroad. We are just scratching the surface.”
In order for this to become a truly scalable endeavor, communities need the support of the government, according to the panelists.
“As a species, what is our intention?” said world-renowned architect and designer William McDonough. “We can change the weather, the acidity of the ocean, we can pollute. If that’s our plan, we’re doing great. If it’s not our plan, there’s no one who’s been ordained to articulate the plan. That’s where I think government could really play a role.”
This would mean creating incentives for developers to build energy-efficient, safe and equitable homes. This would mean creating public-private partnerships to leverage existing money and resources.
OLD VS. NEW
One thing that I thought was interesting about the panel was the inclusion of Nawal Al Hosany, director of Sustainability for Masdar City of UAE International. Masdar bills itself as the world’s first carbon-neutral zero waste city, powered entirely by renewable energy. Al Hosany touted the “holistic approach” her government has taken to stimulate the economy by creating jobs and new markets, improving the quality of life for residents, cleaning the environment, and so forth. “If you just target just one aspect,” she said, “you cannot be sustainable; you have to have the whole value chain working together.”
Masdar’s vision certainly is enviable. But what struck me about the Masdar project is how different it is from New Orleans. Masdar is being built from scratch. New Orleans is rooted in history. Masdar aims to draw in a new population of 90,000 residents. New Orleans is trying to re-build the community it lost. Masdar is a symbol of growth and innovation. New Orleans has a legacy of trauma and government neglect.
Indeed, Masdar has faced much criticism:
Treehugger asked, “Are Masdar City and the Masdar Initiative a first step toward genuine sustainable development in the Gulf – or a very clever strategy to shield the Emirates from environmental criticism while they continue along the same unsustainable path?”
Peter Droege, a renewable energy expert, had this response: “This depends on whether Masdar is part of a genuine national defossilisation strategy or a one-off green billboard at the airport. When the oil is ‘gone’, what will Masdar produce that can justify the bloated population in the desert metropolis? These questions are not really being addressed – but to me this vision would be more interesting than Masdar as the solar mall it is presented as.”
This reminds me of what was said at an earlier session this morning, about how “place is space with memory.” With no memory to speak of, how can an out-of-the-box eco-city like Masdar develop into a real community? Who will be responsible for setting the vision, when there is no sense of attachment or ownership of the place?
By the same token, how can New Orleans continue to strive for innovative principles, rather than rely on conventional thinking? How can stakeholders like Make It Right ensure that the people in the community have a voice in the decision-making process?
At the end of the day, infrastructure is more than just roads, buildings and electrical lines. It’s about the social fabric of a community, and the collective memory of a geography, that determines whether a place will thrive and replicate, or destroy itself from within.
William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd President, United States of America; Founding Chairman, Clinton Global Initiative
Nawal Al Hosany, Director of Sustainability, Masdar City, UAE International
Melody Barnes, Director of Domestic Policy Council, White House
Tom Darden, Executive Director, Make It Right
Richard Fedrizzi, President, USGBC
William McDonough, Founding Partner, William McDonough & Partners
Brad Pitt, Founder, Make It Right
Dierdra Taylor, Make It Right Homeowner; Hospice Worker