14 October 2008

New Orleans comes back to life .

Solar panels adorn the new houses' roofs. Concrete columns hoist some homes several feet up off the ground, which remains vulnerable to flooding. Walkways of permeable concrete will allow rain to flow through, instead of pooling up; it's hoped that the material could end storm runoff and ease pressure on the city's pumping system.

Inside the homes, walls are sealed with sprayed insulation. The drywall is made without paper, so it will dry quickly and resist mold. Windows are made to withstand hurricane-force winds and don't need to be boarded up before a storm. The solar panels probably wouldn't survive a 200 m.p.h. wind, but the homes should.

"The idea is that families have a house to come back to" after a storm, said Make It Right's director, Tom Darden. "The difference between having to replace your solar panels or having to replace your home is night and day."

A key consultant in the Lower Ninth Ward project was architect William McDonough. His other projects include Ford Motor Co.'s River Rouge turf-covered truck plant in Michigan, and a building at Oberlin College in Ohio that produces more energy than it uses.

McDonough's adviser for the Lower Ninth Ward project is Katherine Grove, who said energy independence "doesn't have to be rocket science." There are three basic principles, she said: Make sure there's daylight in every room, insulate according to climate and reduce water loads.

Green homes don't have to be new, she said. Reusing materials is especially beneficial in urban areas so long as the building's shell is safe. Salvaging old windows and frames, for instance, can be an efficient and attractive way to bring light through interior walls. Old mantels and other ornamental touches can add beauty.

In New Orleans, Darden said, the new houses incorporate some tried-and-true design elements used in the area for generations. Ceilings are high. Windows can be opened to bring in cool breezes. Porches are shaded.

Added to that are the solar panels, and geothermal systems that can cool and heat using underground circulation.

About a mile from the Make It Right project is another energy-efficient residence, the first of five planned houses to be accompanied by an 18-unit apartment building and a community center. The Global Green Holy Cross project, like the Make It Right project, aims for energy self-sufficiency.

Birgitta Bisztray of Global Green USA takes visitors on tours of the house. All the electricity comes from the 28 solar panels on its roof, she said. And knowing their house will have power when storms knock out public systems is reassuring for residents, she said.

The second floor has a deck with city views and a garden.

Interiors feature nontoxic materials, such as paint with low VOC (volatile organic compounds) and natural-fiber carpeting. Bathrooms feature dual-flush toilets. Windows are double-paned. Appliances are Energy Star whenever possible.

Among those touring the state-of-the-art home are groups refurbishing some of the thousands of residences damaged by Katrina. A Brookings Institution study found that as of March 2008, the city was dealing with 65,000 blighted properties or vacant lots. It estimated that before the storm there were no more than 15,000 such properties.

Yet another project, about four miles from the Global Green house, involves about 100 homes being fixed up by a group called NOLA 100. It's funded by the Salvation Army, Clinton Foundation, AmeriCorps and Hope Has a Face.

From Freep.com

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