In the years since the 2005 hurricane season ravaged the U.S. Gulf Coast, many volunteers have headed south to help rebuild. From March 9–19, 2010, hundreds of architects, engineers, planners, landscape architects, interior designers, contractors, and students are expected in New Orleans for the third annual event hosted by Historic Green (historicgreen.org), a nonprofit organization focused on merging historic preservation and sustainability. The organization, founded in Kansas City, Mo., has been working with the Holy Cross neighborhood in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward to rebuild in a way that is both culturally and environmentally sensitive. In fact, Holy Cross has set the goal of becoming the nation’s first zero carbon community. Historic Green co-founder Jeremy Knoll explains how the nonprofit initiative is joining this effort.
The Holy Cross community could have rebuilt in any manner. What do you think drove its residents to incorporate sustainability in its goals?
I think part of it was the understanding that the disaster they experienced was a result of both man-made and nature-made negligence, from the degradation of the wetlands, the poor construction of the industrial canal, and global warming causing more frequent, stronger hurricanes. They saw the vulnerability of the place they call home to these outside factors.
Their work with the Sierra Club on rebuilding the adjacent wetlands included examining climate change. In order to instill confidence in the rebuilding, it took inspired leaders to take on something much bigger than just recreating what had been. It took an inspired community to realize that part of what had hit it was something the community could take a stand against and, in doing so, could become an example for everyone else. I think it is the notion that if we’re going to go through the difficult emotional effort of rebuilding, we should make sure we’re building exactly what we need and that we are building it right.
How did Historic Green become involved with the Holy Cross neighborhood?
When I first got out of school, the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Emerging Green Builders (EGB) committee was a big part of my life. Through that, I connected with David Macaulay, a Kansas City–based writer who was working with the Holy Cross neighborhood. [Read Macaulay’s Flashback column on Mithun’s Seattle offices, starting on page 33.]
We created a webcast for EGB and David gave a presentation about the Lower Ninth Ward, the Holy Cross neighborhood, and its climate goals. After that, four of us—myself, David, Curt Rohner, and Ryan Evans—got together once a week to tell people within the USGBC what was going on. We decided that we needed to stop talking and take action—and that action became Historic Green.
The big question was what, exactly, would we do? It seemed clear that we had an opportunity to tap into the EGB and USGBC networks to meet a chief need, which was the need for architects, contractors, and engineers who are qualified and know about sustainability and preservation.
We went to New Orleans, met with a lot of organizations, and realized how many people were already there doing great work. They simply weren’t talking to each other and didn’t have the resources or manpower to realize each organization’s vision.
We realized that we were not going to invent an answer. The neighborhood residents told us they’d had enough charrettes and experimental thinking without anything actually being built. The inspiration for us was to work with the existing organizations on the common thread of homes, playgrounds, parks, and community centers, all places the community had identified as important. Once we established partners, it was more or less asking them for their wildest dreams. We asked what could you accomplish if we brought you the brains and brawn of 1,000 students, young professionals, and established practitioners with expertise in sustainability and preservation and a background in construction and building trades? It was exciting to see overlap between organizations and we saw we could serve as connective tissue between like-minded organizations that weren’t necessarily connected before.
Working with a range of organizations, what do you see as the main goals of Historic Green?
Our goal right out of the gate was to be a conduit connecting a national and international pool of volunteers to meaningful projects. We want to create a shortcut from point A to point B so that anyone who wants to help will be put to work swinging a hammer on a project that the neighborhood association has identified as important. As it happens, these projects also are helping the neighborhood achieve its climate and preservation goals.
Another goal was to create the annual spring event, which gives us an opportunity to focus what we do in one big reconstruction party. We also want to provide educational and advanced training opportunities for both locals who are affected by the work we’re doing as well as our volunteers. We give training on a spectrum of construction methods—how to build a joint for a house correctly, how to weatherize a structure, or what to consider when building a rain garden—with a focus on how to build efficiently and in a way that’s respectful of the context of neighborhood.
A major goal we’re working on is to bridge the subjects of preservation and sustainability and see them become greater allies. We’re working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the USGBC to see how they can partner. For too long the subjects of preservation and sustainability have been held separate when in reality there is almost a 90 percent overlap between them. Demonstrating that can be a powerful tool as America begins to look at ways to preserve what we have while also planning for the future.
How does Historic Green compare to the work being done by the Make It Right Foundation?
Make It Right is a partner of ours and we work with its staff in planning and identifying materials and partners. It is a very important force in the neighborhood not only because it’s doing great work, but also because it’s making the effort there extremely visible. The difference between us and them is that they are working on extremely modern designs in a concentrated building zone where there’s a lot of focus on innovation and sustainability and less focus on context and cultural preservation. In comparison, you could almost dub Historic Green “made it right” because, rather than building new structures, our focus is on rehabilitating homes and community centers that were built before the hurricanes and, in some cases, even before the levees were in place.
I think it’s important to note, though, it doesn’t take one effort, especially in areas hit by disaster where so much is destroyed at once and the need for fast recovery is paramount. It takes Make it Right and Made it Right, as it were, to rebuild this place. It’s about filling in the spaces between existing buildings but also making sure the existing structures are going to survive another year or another 400 years. It really requires a collaborative effort, not an either/or approach.
How do you balance preservation and sustainability?
With some difficulty. There is not an easy, obvious answer. We view ourselves as an organization that speaks two languages but sees them as one. It’s a focus on respect for the history of the building while also making choices that will ensure it is preserved for future generations.
In terms of specific projects, some of the programs we’ve worked with have dealt directly with the question of how do we preserve the character of these buildings while adding a layer of sustainability, energy efficiency, and/or water efficiency. One partner we worked with was Green Light New Orleans on a project exchanging incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescent bulbs in a house. We’ve gone in to help weatherize houses, working with existing windows and doors and adding components to help reduce leaks. More active things include adding a radiant barrier in an attic, which can reduce a summer cooling bill by 15 to 20 percent. Those are invisible things you can do that don’t change the look of a building but instantly change its efficiency.
We’ve brought in sustainability and preservation experts to help create a new insulation standard for historic homes. Many of these buildings were created before air conditioning existed so being air-tight was not a priority. We look into ways that can allow the building to look the same but perform like a new fully weatherized, fully insulated building.
How did Historic Green approach past events?
During our first year, we invented it as we went along. Despite some stumbling at the beginning, we knew that whatever happened, we were going to do something. We were going to show up, we had invited this network of people to join us, and we were going to make some good things happen, whatever it took. It was extremely difficult to manage and organize, but we were able to do amazing work on an extremely small budget, turning every dollar donated into $10 of built-in value for the neighborhood.
In terms of strategy, we were spread very thin, doing a variety of projects all over the neighborhood. While we had done $250,000 worth of value-added construction, the community couldn’t see the results because you couldn’t point at one project and say that’s the Historic Green house or garden. Last year, with the help of advisers like Bob Berkebile and Majora Carter, we decided to focus on a finite area, choosing a 10-block area of the ward’s main commercial drag. We then approached businesses and homeowners with a menu of services we could provide.
What are some goals of the upcoming event?
This will be our third year working on the same site. We partner with the Preservation Resource Center [PRC], which runs a program called Operation Comeback. They do amazing work with historic buildings, restoring them and putting them back on the market, as well as working with homeowners to bring them back to their homes. Our first year, we helped them deconstruct a 120-year-old multi-use building. Our second year, we held a charrette examining the pros and cons of preservation and sustainability through the lens of this [same] building. This year we break ground on transforming the building into a LEED Platinum–certified community center and home for the neighborhood association and the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development.
Our work on this project is a big success. It was one of the first conversations we had with our partners and, at the start, it was simply the PRC’s director dreaming out loud. At that time, the PRC was intensely interested in LEED, but had no experience with it, so they consulted with us. For us, the results of this multi-year project will be a visible reward and a lasting legacy. It evolved from wanting to help in any way we could, to creating something that will be used as an educational tool both in its construction and its operation.
Historic Green’s spring event takes place March 9–19 in New Orleans. For details visit historicgreen.org.
During past spring events, Historic Green volunteers have tackled a wide range of projects within New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Work on homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina included replacing damaged beams, walls, and floors; installing more efficient windows and insulation; and repairing front porches and other outdoor spaces such as rain gardens. Projects also extend beyond architecture to include community initiatives such as putting together both a children’s library and an adult library at the Lower Ninth Ward Village, which also has served as Historic Green’s base of operations since its inaugural event in 2008.
Courtesy: Historic Green