Mr. Pitt's Neighborhood

With unswerving dedication to high architectural ideals, Make It Right is winning over a sometimes-skeptical public.

February 27, 2015
March/April 2015
A version of this article appears in the March/April 2015 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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On May 17, 2014, a Hollywood-style, red-carpet gala took place in New Orleans at the Sugar Mill, on Convention Center Boulevard. Tickets for the high-profile occasion, starring comedian Chris Rock, crooner Bruno Mars, and indie rockers the Kings of Leon, ranged from $1,000 to $2,500. The evening's host, actor Brad Pitt, would make a guest appearance; attendees would dine on a sumptuous meal prepared by four celebrity chefs; and, to ensure a unique party atmosphere, the services of an “event designer” had been engaged.

As a benefit for Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation, this nearly-over-the-top extravaganza was intended to serve two purposes: first, to celebrate the nonprofit's construction of 100 design-conscious homes densely clustered on the still-devastated flood plains of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward; and second, to raise money to build another 50 homes to meet the organization's 2007 promise of building a total of 150 elegantly designed, energy-efficient, and solar-powered homes for survivors of Hurricane Katrina and its disastrous aftermath.

fe_Hahn_Neighborhood_credit JAMES EWING
Make It Right offers climate-adapted designs from 21 of the world’s foremost architects and collaborates with residents to customize each home. (James Ewing)

fe_Hahn_MIR_homeowner_gardening_credit_TA Smith
Residents save, on average, $130 a month compared to the average homeowner in the area. (TA Smith)

In the end, the event succeeded on all levels: as an A-list party in a city that prides itself on having mastered the art of revelry; as a reminder of the achievements that Pitt’s ambitious, multifaceted project has already racked up; and as a conceptually sophisticated fund-raising mechanism that netted a reported
$4 million—enough to subsidize more construction, more experimentation, more financial assistance, more cutting-edge home building, and more residents returned to the outlying section of the city most severely damaged by Katrina’s wrath.

For a look at the performance of the houses to date, see “They Did Make It Right” below.

Improvement Is “Continuous and Aspirational”

With its roots in architectural appreciation, Make It Right is a tightly run, clearly focused nonprofit that ventures well beyond the cut-and-dried business of constructing one single-family home after another. The organization’s holistic philosophy on basic home construction is understood and articulated most eloquently by architect William McDonough, who describes it as taking a “Cradle to Cradle” approach.

In Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, McDonough and coauthor Michael Braungart, with whom he developed the titular philosophy, describe an intentionally virtuous method of home construction that not only emphasizes the recycling and reuse of materials but also focuses on the use of renewable energy, enhanced water quality, social justice, and human dignity. The philosophy hinges on “improvement that is continuous and aspirational.”

Make It Right’s elaborately detailed website (MakeItRight.org) describes this approach as follows:

“Cradle to Cradle” principles are fundamental to our design process, building methods, and product selection. Our homes are designed to produce more energy than they consume and have a positive impact on their environments. We employ water stewardship strategies like pervious concrete, and all our homes and buildings are solar powered. We use “Cradle to Cradle”-certified building materials like Shaw carpet and Cosentino countertops. We collaborate with communities to design buildings that meet their needs and respect the dignity of the residents.

Beyond Single-Home Construction

Make It Right’s initial foray into areas of activity beyond simply building single-family homes in the devastated Ninth Ward was a construction-related effort designed to reduce the cost of providing solar power (see “Phoenix Rising: Lessons Learned from Katrina,” HE July/August ’10, p. 36). Make It Right Solar is a for-profit spin-off formulated in 2009 to take advantage of state and federal tax credits as well as a Katrina-specific federal grant program, thereby lowering the overall cost of installation and financing.

In 2009, Louisiana’s now-robust, post-Katrina solar industry was still in its infancy. So Make It Right decided to share the benefits it had arranged for itself with other nonprofit builders in New Orleans, contributing more than 50 solar systems to post-Katrina, nonprofit-built homes. Now, Make It Right says, many solar companies are just as capable as it is of providing low-cost equipment and funding to nonprofit builders.

Meanwhile, the organization has expanded geographically. With HelpUSA as partner, Make It Right’s Newark, New Jersey, project, which opened early in 2012, provides 56 units of housing for disabled veterans, with solar power, a rooftop vegetable garden, and community resources. In Kansas City, Missouri, the organization partnered locally to convert an abandoned elementary school into the centerpiece of a multi-unit/community center project completed in November 2013 and offering 50 affordable rental apartments for youth transitioning out of foster care, veterans, and low-income families.

The inner-city redevelopment effort also includes a community center with an auditorium, gym, tech lab, job-training center, clinic, and grocery. Currently, Make It Right is partnering with the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes of Fort Peck, Montana, to provide 20 model units of low-cost housing and develop a sustainable master plan for the tribes’ entire reservation, where overcrowding is chronic and more than 600 families are in need of housing.

fe_Hahn_Santi_Frank_Gehry_Home_Exterior_credit Chad Chenier
A Frank Gehry-designed home. (Chad Chenier)

fe_Hahn_Santi_Frank_Gehry_Home_Interior_credit Chad Chenier.jpg
Interior designs respect natural lighting. (Chad Chenier)

Swimming in Snark-Infested Celebrity Media

Make It Right’s high-profile ambitions invited their fair share of criticism. The eye rolling began when, for an initial fundraising event, large, pink geometric structures were scattered over primary building sites, each one up for “adoption” by potential donors. Part art installation, part act of social disobedience—as project sponsor Brad Pitt described it during an interview with Larry King—the “Pink Project” was only partially successful. Looking back on it, even Pitt admitted, “It was a bit daft.”

In many ways, though, Pitt’s own celebrity status has been responsible for much of the skepticism directed at Make It Right, with detractors portraying the entire endeavor as a kind of vanity project: the wealthy, high-flying actor with a passing interest in architecture commissioning plans from hot-shot architects mainly for his own pleasure.

The futuristic designs themselves have attracted an equal measure of disdain. Take, for instance, the comments in a March 2013 article in New Republic magazine, which called Make It Right’s angular homes “a bizarre sight in this city of graceful Creole symmetry” and described them as “spread out like a field of pastel-colored UFOs … on a largely barren moonscape.”

Architectural taste and personal aesthetics aside, New Republic’s main argument against Make It Right concerned the deployment of assets in this vulnerable neighborhood. Complaints have been lodged against the project for rebuilding at all, thus forcing the expensive extension of civic infrastructure; and once rebuilding was under way, for spending large sums of money to achieve a select number of lofty goals when less ambition could have provided housing for more people.

The snark-infested celebrity media had a heyday at the beginning of this year, when Make It Right announced that a specially treated wood product used to build outdoor stairs and decks was rotting after just a couple of years of use, and that stairs and decks in approximately 30 homes would have to be replaced immediately.

Character and Personal Adaptations

In the end, though, Make It Right’s strongest argument for itself may be its unrelenting adherence to idealism, apparent both in the organization-wide transparency and in the simple attainment of basic critical mass: 100 houses inhabited by families and individuals. Today that translates into one of the basic building blocks of civilization: a neighborhood.

And even though it’s a neighborhood with a strong and distinct architectural character, residents are allowed to make alterations, as Linda Santi learned when she signed up several years ago for the chance to purchase a Make It Right home. An executive with a local nonprofit dedicated to affordable housing, Santi qualified as a potential buyer as a displaced former resident of the Lower Ninth Ward.

They Did Make It Right

Make It Right has currently built around 100 of its goal of 150 homes to be constructed in the Lower Ninth Ward. More than 15 different architect designs for single- and multifamily homes are being built.

A study funded by Greater New Orleans Foundation was an in-depth analysis of the actual energy usage of Make It Right’s homes. The study looked at 76 of Make It Right’s homes constructed in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

Through the data collection, we gathered solar PV production data, electricity consumption data, and the HERS Index on 76 homes. Through homeowner surveys, we gathered data on homeowner usage habits and family savings for 50 of the 76 homes.

Several key findings from the results include:

  • The Make It Right homes in the study have an average HERS rating of 26, which means they are 59% more efficient than an Energy Star home and 141% more efficient than the traditional New Orleans homes that were part of the study (when comparing using the HERS rating).
     
  • The average annual Energy Use Intensity (EUI) for the Make It Right homes in this study is 26.4 kBtu/ft2, which is 36% lower than the average annual EUI for single-family homes in the southern climate (41.5), and 50% lower than the average annual EUI for the traditional New Orleans homes evaluated in this study (52.9).
     
  • The Make It Right homes met on average 54% of their electrical energy demand through their solar PV production. Eight of the 76 homes are actually net zero electric (they are producing more electricity than they use), and 38 additional homes had less than 5,000 kWh of annual electric usage (or $42/month). 

     
  • There are significant savings to the homeowners who live in Make It Right homes in terms of energy savings on their utility bills. On average (based on the results of the homeowner survey), they are saving $130/month, which is a 65% savings over their previous utility bills prior to moving to their Make It Right home. Over the course of a typical 30-year mortgage, the savings from the Make It Right homeowners’ utility bills would amount to over $63,000 (assuming a 2% annual increase in utility rates).
     
  • Ninety-two percent of the homeowners surveyed said that they were satisfied with their Make It Right home.

Overall, the data collected through the study supports the fact that Make It Right’s sustainable and energy-efficient design does greatly impact the homeowners’ family finances and quality of life in a positive way. They are saving money each month through lower utility bills and are able to spend that money on other necessities, such as groceries, gas, and health care.

Adapted from Impact of Sustainable Design & Energy Efficient Construction in the Lower 9th Ward, prepared for the Make It Right Foundation by Blue Frog Home Performance.

Like all potential buyers, she went through a careful screening and counseling process, which included negotiations around her ability to afford payments for the house she chose to build, with several options considered for housing construction. Choosing a design by Frank Gehry, one of the world’s best-known architects, Santi asked for, and got, a host of alterations, including a redesigned floor plan, natural gas for cooking, and a retractable clothesline installed on one of her home’s several outdoor decks.

Santi was especially impressed by Make It Right’s hands-on involvement throughout the qualification, selection, construction, and moving-in process. “When you’re the homeowner,” Santi says, “you don’t get up from the closing table while they simply go on to build their next house. Make It Right really does want to … makeitright.” There’s a growing sense of community in the neighborhood, she reports, and promises of low utility costs have been borne out with bills in the $22 range for gas and electricity combined. “My utility bills are pretty much the same year-round; about the same in August as in December, with all the Christmas lights, and in January, which is cold and damp in New Orleans.”

As far as the advanced design of the new homes is concerned, Santi points out that since no housing survived Katrina, what’s being built now is consistent within the whole, creating what she says is a “homogenous neighborhood.”

learn more

Visit Make It Right Foundation website for more on the New Orleans rebuilding, and on home building in other areas.

McDonough, William, and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. New York: North Point Press, 2002.

DePillis, Lydia. “If You Rebuild It, They Might Not Come.” New Republic, March 13, 2013.

MacCash, Doug. “Brad Pitt’s Make It Right redevelopment reaches the 100 home mark and produces an A-list gala.” Times-Picayune, May 14, 2014.

Feireiss, Kristin, and Brad Pitt. Architecture in Times of Need: Make It Right—Rebuilding New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Munich; Prestel, 2009.

Winning Over Even the Most Skeptical

Make It Right’s successes have also been measured against some of the toughest yardsticks available. Recently, the U.S. Green Building Council, which sets the green-building standards known as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), called the project “the largest, greenest neighborhood in the world,” noting that every Make It Right house met the group’s highest, LEED-Platinum criteria.

After marshaling all its critical arguments, New Republic admitted, “It’s all too easy to be won over by the spirit of the Lower Ninth, by the passion of the people who did return.”

Over the years, the New Orleans Times-Picayune art critic Doug MacCash has also become an unabashed fan. Writing on the occasion of the May 17, 2014, gala, he compared the existing “suite of 100 eye-catchingly angular, silver-roofed homes” to a “monumental conceptual artwork.” And he expressed appreciation for the pragmatic side of the Make It Right equation: “The futuristic neighborhood built to replace one destroyed by an ecological/engineering tragedy is meant to help mitigate future ecological/engineering tragedies. That’s poetry.”

But these successes were not always assured. In a book assembled to document the entire Make It Right journey, Architecture in Times of Need: Make It Right—Rebuilding New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, Pitt writes:

If someone had detailed the immense hurdles we’d encounter, it might have appeared too daunting a task to take on.

By the same token, had we not believed so naively in the possibility, we would not be experiencing the unquantifiable sensation we’re witnessing now, a neighborhood resurrecting itself from the rubble, and the ultimate joy of families returning home. Make It Right has exceeded my expectations …

[And] if you are ever able to tour one of the Make It Right homes, you will discover buildings of air and light, homes that have respect for the families within, homes that have respect for a parent’s paycheck, respect for the health of its children, and respect for the environment at large. Make It Right has proven that there is no reason affordability means sacrificing quality and care. These are homes of dignity. And isn’t this architecture at its best? …

Roger Hahn is a freelance writer based in New Orleans who covers a wide range of subjects, from energy-efficient home building to the best new Cajun bands.

Thanks to Taylor Royle of Make It Right and Linda Santi for their tremendous help in putting this article together.

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