Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"Make it Right" - Part 1

Steven and Will Playing a Set in Jackson Square
While down in New Orleans for the National AIA Convention, I had chance to talk with a couple street musicians, Will and Steven, about Hurricane Katrina. They both had construction experience and they were ready to dialogue on the fallout between sets.  Will said “After Hurricane Katrina we had Chinese Drywall.” 

He went on to explain that a lot of the chinese drywall that got shipped to New Orleans as part of the reconstruction had a highly acidic component.  According to Will it had some volcanic rock content that corroded wiring and he had an electrical fire in his house as a consequence.  I was interested in seeing what others affected by the disaster might have to say about this subject.

I took a taxi to the 9th ward from downtown.  The trip out there from downtown is only about four miles and while there had been a few stories about safety concerns, the walk back downtown in broad daylight was a serene affair.   The most disconcerting thing about the bi-water and 9th ward neighborhoods during the day is their semi-vacant quality.  This is particularly true of the 9th ward, which was on the “wrong side” of the levee. 

A Typical 9th Ward Street

There had been several models of the Brad Pitt “Make it Right” buildings at the AIA convention and I wanted to see these interesting specimens in the context of the rest of the ninth ward.  The taxi driver dropped me off on Tennesse Street, where you can find most of the MIR (“Make it Right”) buildings.  The brighter colors, extra height and abnormal geometry of these homes are the first things one notices.  The street has a unique feel and the buildings are unmistakably different than the other homes that have been rebuilt in the area. 

A grouping of "Make it Right Houses"

At the convention there had been several paid tours that would take you out to see the 9th ward one had the feeling the neighborhood had seen their fair share of architects come through on previous days.  I would characterize the atmosphere as both guarded and friendly. 

As I got to the end of one of the main streets associated with the “Make it Right “ effort I came across Robert, sitting on the vestige of a concrete stair in his front yard.  He was using this “stoop” to gut fish and he asked me if I was an architect or an architectural student.  “I recognize your black book,” he said. “All the architecture students have them.”  

Robert's House (the stoop in the foreground is from the original house)

This is always a hurdle with doing or researching affordable housing.  The people who are the subject of the project are aware they are, to some extent, “typecast” for that project.  Nobody wants to simply be the “affordable housing” person.  If its going to be like that you better be willing to be “typecast” too.  If the shoe fits you better be willing to wear it.  There was something a little pretentious about it but this didn't quell my curiosity.  We had a good laugh about it.

Robert was amazingly gracious.  His home was a metal SIP panel house similar to the Agriboard projects we have recently executed.  There were several of these in the “Make it Right” effort and Robert invited me inside to see the interior.

All the homes are surprisingly narrow simply because of the New Orleans “shot gun” lot morphology.  Robert’s house appeared to be two stories but on closer examination, the balcony on the front fa├žade of the house was simply a means of egress.  There was not much associated with the balcony on the inside beyond a small loft.  Many people had been trapped and died in attics during the hurricane.  These balconies and attic hatches are a means of egress during such an event.  Robert showed me the spiral stair that went up to his loft/balcony and introduced me to the cat.  His daughter was sleeping so we didn’t go in that room. 

Metal SIP Panel for Robert's House

I asked Robert about the drywall and he said all the houses in the 9th ward were LEED platinum certified and the drywall was “paperless.”  As a consequence there was no issue with the chinese drywall.  Apparently the paper is a major contributor to the mold in the homes and by keeping the drywall paperless they were able to substantially mitigate mold growth.  This approach is definitely something to keep in mind for a project on the “dark side” of Fitch Mountain or out in Forestville here in Sonoma County.  The one thing to be aware of with paperless drywall is the fact the paper is there for a reason.  The paper finish associated with traditional drywall is replaced with a rougher fiberglass matt facing that requires a skim coat of drywall mud over the entire wall (i.e. level V).  This finish can be about 15% more expensive than more standard drywall finishes but under the right circumstances this is a good investment.

As Robert and I wound down our conversation Robert explained he had lost both his granddaughter and Mother in the hurricane.  About a block and half down there was a wreath on an old oak tree on the other side of the street and he explained that his house had drifted all the way down there during the storm and that was why there was a wreath on it.  As an architect, its easy to see the recovery effort as a simple matter of coming up with a clever design to repair the physical damage to the built environment.  Talking with Robert reminded me this was the tip of the iceberg.

But I have a lot of hope for the 9th ward.  The people there were so gracious and I'd dare say a little proud too.  One young girl had set up a praline cookie stand to sell cookies for $3 each to the visiting architects.  Like so many places in america their beauty is a unique amalgam of civilization and wilderness, order and spontaneous invention.

The next post will feature some of the more distinctive work associated with this endeavor.

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