Learning from New Orleans

Last December, Katherine Grove of William McDonough + Partners and Richard Maimon, of Kieran Timberlake, shared the stage at Ecobuild in Washington, DC. They were invited to discuss their work at the Make It Right project in New Orleans, where Cradle to Cradle provides a framework for the design of the community and of individual homes by several firms.

Make It Right is a pro bono effort to rebuild a community of safe and healthy homes. The emphasis is on affordability, high-quality, design, and sustainable construction. To date, 80 LEED Platinum homes have been built making the neighborhood a living laboratory of construction and material processes. Grove’s and Maimon’s presentations focused on the collaborative approach of the Make It Right interdisciplinary team, which has achieved remarkable effectiveness and efficiencies. They lowered the cost of building eco-friendly homes by managing the economics of the home designs, the costs of materials and labor, the education of staff and labor on site, contractor profit margins, insurance, legal and governmental fees, staff education, and the speed of construction.

Grove gave an overview of the Make It Right project and talked about how Cradle to Cradle was applied here: specifically with respect to materials assessment, target diagrams, and key performance goals for homes. Maimon presented an in-depth analysis of the Kieran Timberlake prototype house, including a look at how the design has evolved over multiple construction iterations, continually improving its effectiveness with regard to affordability, materials, and other factors. Grove followed this with a look at some lessons learned and initiatives under way, which include multiple modes of construction, workforce training, cross-training of builders, and more. After their presentation, I talked with them about the goals, lessons, and promise of Make It Right.KieranTimberlake, Special No.9 House C Will CrockerSpecial No.9 House, by Kieran Timberlake. Photo: Will Crocker

Kira Gould: Cradle to Cradle is often understood as having mostly to do with materials, but its function as a framework at Make It Right seems to highlight both that it is more complex and that “safe and healthy” are at its core. Can you summarize the basics of the concept and talk about how those translate into a usable framework for design teams?

Grove: Cradle to Cradle thinking, as developed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in their 2002 book, suggests that everything we create can contribute positively to society, the economy, and the environment. Our team is using it to guide design and materials selection for the new Make It Right homes. We want the products and construction methods used at Make It Right to be safe for people and the environment. Product selections for the homes, for instance, consider materials as nutrients and recognize the two safe metabolisms in which they flow. Looking at buildings, the challenge is that the goal is the same, and the variables are greater. You are still trying to define health and abundance in a specific place at a specific time. The Cradle to Cradle framework in the Lower 9th ward is focused on safety for all living things and on the concept of restoration and restorative practices to address the cultural and social history of the place.

Maimon: The striking thing about Make It Right is that its goals are so much greater than “provide shelter”. The entire effort was founded on making a neighborhood for the people who had lost everything. This is not just about buildings and the materials that go into them, but it is also about people and how they live in a place.

Gould: Lots of lip service is paid to  the importance of collaboration and interdisciplinary teams as part of the pathway toward successful design results and especially for achieving  high-level sustainability or performance goals. How was such interdisciplinary collaboration realized here? And why was it critical?

Maimon: We believe that the only way to achieve superior results in design and architecture is through maximizing collaboration with the entire team: consultants, builders, neighborhood residents, etc. We need this input to have the rich basis on which the design can rest. In this project, the inclusion of community organizations and the residents themselves was absolutely critical. The 13 architecture firms who participated, along with William McDonough + Partners, Graft, and John Williams Architects, in the first round, would never have been able to execute their designs effectively without the input of these groups: They know what  matters about this place—the landscape, the climate, the culture, the history. All of that was hugely informative to the design.

Grove: The Make It Right organization has been consistently committed to honoring that community engagement in a significant, ongoing way. That is just one element of what I would call a constant layering of collaboration throughout the process.

Maimon: Their willingness to constantly learn has been important, too, as we designed prototypes and then refined them. As prototypes were built, the feedback loop has deepened. The experiences of the builders, and the organization’s commitment to documenting these and sharing the lessons, has helped get the costs down, even as the homes continued to achieve LEED Platinum. All along, these were meant to be affordable and replicable.

Gould: Part of Make It Right’s mission has been to prove that high sustainability aspirations can be achieved in affordable homes—and to do so in a way that would be replicable elsewhere. What has worked best to demonstrate this principle?

Maimon: When you look at the charts that record the sustainability performance of the houses, you can see that it really comes down to fundamentally good choices. Most of it is not exotic: heavy duty insulation, effective air circulation, smart and healthy materials. There are PVs, but we didn’t use many specialized but expensive systems that are often used in buildings seeking LEED certification at the Gold or Platinum level.

Grove: That’s right. The success of these homes is not a shopping list of products. It’s about using integrated design that enables you to find economies in form and systems. These are things we can do in any project, especially affordable homes, such as using healthy, durable materials.

Gould: Why did Make It Right elect to pursue LEED if you were using the Cradle to Cradle framework?

Maimon: LEED, for all its pros and cons, is widely recognized as a measure, which is important–. having that credibility  helped give the project mileage in terms of sustainability and replicability.

Grove: Cradle to Cradle is not a building rating system; it’s a broader framework. We looked at lots of rating and ranking systems, LEED is rigorous, recognizable, and includes the Energy Star protocols (performance must be documented). We knew that this would be meaningful to donors. Also, we felt that we could secure recognizable certification in a way that would be cost-neutral to homeowners, which was important. For instance, Make It Right was able to get grants from organizations that encourage affordable housing to go green (such as Home Depot).

Gould: “Lessons learned” can be powerful, especially in an industry that’s poor at sharing what didn’t work. What lessons have your teams and the Make It Right team learned that is already being leveraged toward future improvements?

Grove: One of the most important things that Make It Right offers the design community is its use of real-time and constant evaluation. They have made this a priority and they have kept the commitment over time. This has a very real impact on the ability of the teams to achieve the budget and design goals.

Maimon: That’s a great point. The budget goals were daunting: $150,000 per house. As a firm, we took this seriously from the outset. Our design had fairly restrained features, although we certainly took into consideration the vernacular preferences we heard about. For each successive house, we have adapted the design based on the feedback loop that we discussed earlier, especially looking hard at materials and methods to seek out economies and greater effectiveness.

The ultimate goal is creating a neighborhood. Architects can get caught up in the issues of proportion and detail that we all would love to achieve on every project. We are proud of our design and our part in this project.

Gould: What alternative modes of construction are being considered at Make It Right?

Maimon: We saw this as an opportunity to advance the use of off-site fabrication. The reality of the economics of New Orleans in 2008 meant that stick-built was the way to begin. We did use SIPs panels, which was a positive step forward.

To be truly sustainable, we need a more vibrant economy in New Orleans. Tourism is everything there, and it’s been light. Why not look into starting a housing factory in the area? This was very appealing to us: linking social and economic sustainability to environmental sustainability. This has not been realized yet, but several houses constructed last year used off-site construction methods, and we see this as promising and exciting.

Grove: A number of the prototypes are designed for both different configuration as well as different construction modes (panelized wood, panelized metal, some off-site modular elements, floating foundation, etc.). Identifying strategic modifications that can be applied to all the designs has also been important. We asked, Can we modify foundations to minimize volume of concrete but maximize and optimize stability and safety and effectiveness? Yes, we can. This kind of strategy requires a lot of persistent work and “staying with it” to capture the lessons from every built house.

Make It Right House 7 C 2009 Make It Right

Gould: What kind of “cross-training for builders” is occurring at Make It Right and why is that important?

Maimon: There was a desire to hire many small general contractors and have each of them do a small number of houses. Make It Right sees this as seeding the lessons more broadly. This has an organizational cost to Make It Right, but it was always an important goal.

Grove: Yes, this is important. There is, in fact, a “learning” clause in the contractors’ contract that specifically talks about methods and materials: They agree to share specialized knowledge with other contractors and sub-consultants and to attend workshops to learn alternate methods. Sharing and collaboration is literally built into the system. This is smart and really a win/win/win: The consumer (Make It Right and the families) gets a better product and better prices (both of which are improving over time), and the GCs themselves gain skills to become more marketable.

Gould: What’s next for Make It Right?

Grove: The central goal, of course is to complete its mission in the Lower 9th: 150 houses, workforce training, and more. But part of Make It Right’s goal is constant innovation and to that end, they continue to seek grants and donations to support their immediate and long term goal of demonstrating replicability and Cradle to Cradle methods. The neighborhood is now a pilot project for permeable paving, there are a variety of pocket parks (green playground, urban farming, materials depot), and there is discussion about possible restoration of the bayou to the north, and other area improvements.

We are excited that now the story of Make It Right is told by the people who are living in the Lower 9th again. This is social sustainability in real time, and it’s quite powerful to see and hear.

Maimon: The unwavering focus on people makes Make It Right a special effort. Melba Leggett-Barnes is living in our first house there. She told us, “I have learned that what is good for the house is good for me.” That is sustainability in action.

Katherine Grove, AIA, works in the William McDonough + Partners studio in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her experience in successfully delivering full architectural services, including construction administration, complements her in-depth knowledge of materials and love of the crafted detail. With 12 years at McDonough, Kathy draws on her deep knowledge of Cradle to Cradle principles to design safe and healthy living spaces inspired by natural systems.

Richard Maimon, FAIA, has been with KieranTimberlake for more than 20 years, participating in the growth of the firm and deeply involved in the breadth of its work. He currently oversees a range of projects including the Embassy of the United States in London and the redesign of Dilworth Plaza in Philadelphia. He has been responsible for highly acclaimed projects including the Special NO 9 House, a post-Katrina home for the Make It Right Foundation. This house earned an AIA Committee on the Environment Top Ten Green Projects award.

Kira Gould, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, is a writer and director of communications for William McDonough + Partners. She is co-author of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design. Follow her on Twitter.

Cradle to Cradle is a registered trademark of MBDC.

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