Tom Darden on Making It Right in New Orleans


Image: PBS

Brad Pitt's vision for a green rebuild of the Lower Ninth Ward is being realized by Make It Right, an innovative organization whose cutting-edge designs, sculpted by world-class architects, are both stunning and controversial. Tom Darden is the executive director of Make It Right. He explains how the vision came to be, how he works with the residents who lost their homes, and reflects on the similarities between the destruction in NOLA and the earthquake in Haiti.

Music from Molly Fitzpatrick

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: Tell us how this all started, how you linked up with Brad Pitt and how the vision for Make It Right came into being.

Tom Darden: Well, as you probably know, Brad Pitt loves New Orleans. He and his family consider New Orleans home, and like so many Americans, they were motivated to do something to help out after Hurricane Katrina. And having seen the lack of response by the government and the lack of effectiveness of some of the NGOs in the recovery, Brad wanted to do something to help out.

But he didn't want to just rebuild houses that were the same as the houses that were there before the storm. He wanted to build houses that were safer, better constructed (so that they're protected against future storms), and that are healthy for the families that live in them. So they're designed around their needs, by some of the most amazing architects in the world.

He wanted to help rebuild a community that was one of the most devastated and really make a statement about the way that houses could and should be built. He selected an area that was totally wiped out, that way if we could figure out how to make this area a model for sustainable rebuilding, then we could do it anywhere.

So that was really how the vision for Make It Right developed. Brad reached out very early on to an architect named Bill McDonough, who wrote a book called Cradle to Cradle, about sustainable design. Brad asked Bill to oversee the project in terms of sustainability.

Bill McDonough and my father have done some work together previously, and I heard about the concept at the time through Bill. And so I volunteered to come down to New Orleans (I'm originally from North Carolina) for a few weeks to do some research on the idea. That three week volunteer experience turned into about a three year journey for me now. But it's been amazing so far. We just got started in that we've got 25 houses built so far. Our goal is 150, and hopefully we'll be able to have a positive impact.

TreeHugger: Tell me about the pink houses.

Darden: The pink houses was an amazing idea that Brad had. The first time that I heard about it I thought it was totally crazy; but it turns out that it was absolutely brilliant. Brad was working on the set of the Benjamin Button movie here in New Orleans, and there's a scene in that movie where they digitally impose a house into a field. And so they needed to have something to represent where they were going to digitally impose the house, so they built a hot-pink structure that really stood out from the background of this field.

As you can imagine, that's quite a striking image. And Brad actually took a picture of that, and that image inspired him to come up with the concept of building 150 life-size, symbolic houses--made of hot-pink fabric wrapped around scaffolding--to represent where we were going to be building the actual Make It Right houses.

In a matter of a few days these houses sprung up in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was one of the neighborhoods most devastated by the hurricane. It was the site of one of the levee breaches that just totally wiped out houses. Houses washed off their foundations in this area. The debris had been cleaned up, so this area really looked just like an open field. Of course, there were leftovers or remnants of foundations and front porches--which are really eerie in some ways.

But imagine that setting with 150 life-size, symbolic houses scattered about. And then, over the course of the art installation, as enough money was raised to build a real house, one-by-one the symbolic pink houses were straightened or righted on their lots. It was an amazing event, and I think a real inspiration for the community and the rest of New Orleans. It was a way to make a statement that, even two years after the storm, there was a lot more work that needed to be done.

TreeHugger: Tell us about the design of these homes and the green technologies built into them.

Darden: As I mentioned, Brad is absolutely passionate about architecture, so he reached out to some of the world's most innovative architecture firms. We actually started with 13 different firms, some based here in New Orleans, some based around the country and around the world, including firms like Shigeru Ban from Tokyo, Constructs from Ghana, Adjaye Associates out of London, and Morphosis out of Los Angeles. Just amazing names in the world of architecture.

These firms designed houses for this project pro bono. They worked very closely with residents of the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood that we're rebuilding, throughout the design process, and we hosted multiple community charrettes. The designs that we ended up with, they're inspired, I guess you could say, by traditional New Orleans design. They have a lot of the features, including high ceilings, large windows, covered porches; features that maximize passive heating and cooling, which was so important here in New Orleans prior to HVAC.

So all of these architects donated their designs. And then Bill McDonough and his firm, McDonough and Partners, and then also his company that does chemical analysis, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, actually evaluates all of the products that we use to build the houses. And our goal is to not use any products that are harmful to humans or the environment, so we want to look for products that are easily recyclable, or even compostable, at the end of their lifecycle.

An example of that would be a decking material that we use called TimberSeal, which is a glass-infused wood product. Instead of treating the wood with toxic chemicals, it's actually infused with sand, or silica, such that it takes on the properties of treated lumber, but at the end of its life cycle, which is estimated to be about 300 years, it can be mulched and composted, believe it or not.

We look for products that are eco-friendly, and also products that don't contain any toxic materials or any glues that might off-gas and negatively pollute the indoor air environment. So no-VOC paints, cabinets that are all FSC lumber, no formaldehyde. And then there are many energy-efficient features of the houses as well. One of our goals is to reduce the energy load on the houses. And so I mentioned the solar panels on the roofs. We also use geothermal systems to cool the houses and use closed-cell spray foam insulation, which really completely seals the building envelope.

These houses are really built like coolers, so once you've heated or cooled the air, it stays that way. And the reduction in energy costs to the homeowner is about tenfold. Our energy bills these days are averaging about $35 a month, and for a working family that makes a huge difference. Just to put that in context, my energy bill last month was $350--ten times more. And I live in a 1,500 square foot house which is comparable to the houses that we're building, which average about 1,400 square feet.

TreeHugger: Have you hit any controversy or friction with your presence in New Orleans, be it the design of the homes or otherwise?

Darden: Well, don't get me wrong, I would never try to make the argument that these homes look like traditional New Orleans houses by any stretch. I simply mean that the forms and the function of the houses were inspired by traditional New Orleans design.

In terms of controversy, absolutely. We're making a bold statement, and we're making that statement in many ways. We're building some of the greenest houses--if you will--in terms of their environmental attributes. All of our houses have been certified as LEED Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council. So we're making that statement.

We're also making a statement in terms of innovative design. And it's certainly controversial in a lot of people's opinion. But there's only one set of people whose opinion I really care about, and that's the families we work with. So as long as the families are happy with these designs--and as I mentioned, they participated in the design process very closely--then I'm happy.

And each of the families that we work with, they get to select their design and their color palette. Something that's interesting about this project is that the neighborhood that we're building is being shaped by the decisions of the residents, in terms of which houses go on which lots, what colors you see in the neighborhood, etc. As long as they're happy, I'm good to go. Every one of the families thinks that their house is the best house, which is fine with me.

Tags: Actors | Architects | Architecture | Brad Pitt | Cradle To Cradle | Green Building | New Orleans | William McDonough