Easy Being Green Post-Katrina

Posted inID Mag
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For those rebuilding in post-Katrina New Orleans, environmentally conscious construction can seem like a high-tech luxury. When you don’t have a roof over your head, you’re probably not going to order, say, a hydroponic thermal-mass green roof. But the city’s new Global Green Resource Center, a sustainable materials library and advocacy group, is providing low-cost, high-impact solutions to ecological and economic crises.

“Affordability and sustainability are deeply connected,” notes the center’s director, Beth Galante, a New Orleans native and one-time environmental lawyer who runs the place with artist/builder John Moore (a fourth generation New Orleanian). They have modeled the center after a national operation based in Santa Monica, California, a 14-year-old American affiliate of the Green Cross International. At the New Orleans outpost, which is housed in a former art gallery in the Warehouse District, Galante and Moore have filled the walls and shelves with product samples, brochures, and even a full-size tankless water heater.

Homeowners can drop by or attend workshops for free advice (info at www.globalgreen.org). These days, New Orleans residents particularly want to know how to cut back on energy use: The city’s aging houses were already hard to cool, and local electricity costs are rising. Entergy, the city utility, is bankrupt, leaving some 250,000 mainly low-income customers funding repairs to an electrical grid designed for twice that number. Thus ecological issues have become “questions of social justice,” Galante argues. “Less than half of the former population has been left to sustain all of the infrastructure.”

The center champions short-payback technologies such as solar water heaters, sunlight-reflecting white roof tiles, radiant heat barriers (“basically fancy tinfoil,” Galante says) above ceiling rafters, and insulation made of recycled cellulose and denim. “It’s not sexy,” she adds, “but we’ve learned a strong streak of realism.”

Not that the Resource Center opposes sex appeal. Last August, Brad Pitt sponsored and helped judge a design competition it organized with its Santa Monica counterpart. The winner, Manhattan firm Workshop/apd, designed multifamily dwellings and a community center beside a levee in the Lower Ninth Ward’s Holy Cross section. Low-slung glass buildings trimmed in wood lattice will cantilever above shared gardens. Construction of the $5 million project begins this spring, and the building’s power may come partly from a new river turbine plugged into the Mississippi itself. Galante loves the idea of drawing benefit from the sometimes-dangerous water flow: “That thing doesn’t stop,” she says. “It’s free power.”

The center has just inaugurated LEED seminars with the American Institute of Architects and a $2 million Green Schools construction consulting process supported by the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund. Plans are afoot for a partnership with local manufacturers to develop prefab composite insulation panels. The Home Depot Foundation, among other donors, has committed support for the Resource Center at least through 2010.

Facing a painstaking long-term recovery removed from the spotlight of the initial disaster relief, as well as a coastal location susceptible to the storms intensified by global warming, New Orleans could become, in the Global Green vision, a national showcase for eco-sensitive design and construction. One practical and inspirational resource may be the bamboo running rampant in the local landscape. “Technically it’s a weed,” Galante says, but it’s also a self-regenerating building material. It dominates Galante’s own garden; her Victorian house remains unlivable post-Katrina, but the bamboo is already in fine form. “It would almost shock you,” she says, “how quickly it made a comeback.”

Thomas de Monchaux is a designer and writer based in New York.