Showdown in New Orleans

January 04, 2011
January/February 2011
A version of this article appears in the January/February 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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The occasion was the 2009 Historic Green spring-break gathering of students and professionals in New Orleans. Organized around the goal of creating “the nation’s first zero-carbon neighborhood,” the annual ten-day event provides assistance in New Orleans’ historic Holy Cross neighborhood to revitalize residents’ homes and neighborhood common spaces. In 2009, Historic Green drew on the support of the 750-plus volunteers —including architects, engineers, planners, landscape architects, interior designers, and contractors—and more than two dozen leading environmental and green-building organizations, including the USGBC and the Salvation Army’s EnviRenew recovery program.



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On one of New Orleans’s sunny spring days, Amy King, USGBC director of Chapter Community Development, found herself riding in a car alongside Salvation Army Captain Ethan Frizzell, driving from one Historic Green project to another. In her role as chapter community development director, King oversees the USGBC’s annual Natural Talent Design Competition, which began in 2003 as a bridge between local USGBC chapters and younger practitioners, both architecture students and beginning professionals. By 2009, the competition was attracting 200-plus entries, covering all design types, and choosing winners based solely on design innovation. But King was thinking about revising the competition’s format.

Before joining the USGBC, King had worked in television and film, so she had some sense of the kind of impact a national design competition could have. She wasn’t sure what a revised competition would look like, but she was planning not to hold the competition in 2010, because she wanted time think about how to take it “to the next level.” One model that impressed her was the U.S. Department of Energy’s biennial Solar Decathlon held in the fall on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. From King’s perspective, the Solar Decathlon represented the kind of event that had successfully developed a fairly impressive “return on engagement.”

EnviRenew + USGBC = Focus on Social Equity, Green Neighborhoods

Frizzell, for his part, knew nothing of Amy’s plans. But he did know what he had learned over the past several years doing disaster-recovery work in North Dakota, South Carolina, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and now in New Orleans. In Mississippi, the sight of flooded homes being gutted drove home a conclusion he had already begun to formulate intuitively: the poorer you are, the more poorly built your home tends be. He could now see how a poorly built home could even become a liability for folks of lesser means, with higher energy use on a daily basis and long-term sustainability compromised.

Nothing in his Salvation Army training had prepared him to follow up on this insight, so he began reading books, talking to people, attending conferences. In the end, he developed a deeper understanding of the connection between the Salvation Army’s mission of “doing the most good” and the growing accomplishments in energy-efficient homebuilding. He could also see the effects on all kinds of building projects created by the USGBC and its portfolio of green-building standards. He studied the LEED qualifications for homebuilding and saw how increments of credit were awarded for employing environmentally friendly materials and minimizing resource dependency.

So when he got the opportunity, Frizzell asked King if the USGBC could help the Salvation Army create a model for affordability and community sustainability. Wouldn’t that benefit both the green-building movement and the needs of lower income homeowners? “Our conversation started there,” King reports, “and just never stopped.”

What Frizzell couldn’t have known either—unless he’d been following recent developments at the USGBC closely—was the fact that his suggestion to King and the resulting design competition would dovetail nicely with USGBC’s desire to elevate social equity as a value and outcome integral to sustainable built environments. In April 2010, for example, the USGBC launched its seventh rating system, describing it as “the first comprehensive benchmark for green neighborhood design.” LEED for Neighborhood Development criteria are designed to encourage development within or near existing communities and public infrastructure to reduce the impacts of urban sprawl.

In June 2010, the U.S. Department of Housing announced it would use the same criteria to award $3.25 billion in Sustainable Community Planning Grants and other programs. And in July 2010, the USGBC announced a preliminary grant program designed to augment LEED for Neighborhood Development projects by creating “more affordable green housing, while advancing the sustainability of entire neighborhoods.”

Competitions Can Help Spur Community Innovation

Finally, the last piece of the competition puzzle just fell right into place. EnviRenew has, from the start, envisioned a comprehensive set of program and performance measurements to track efficiency and effectiveness; the USGBC in August 2009 announced the launch of its Building Performance Partnership to gather reporting data from new building projects, and in July 2010 it expanded the effort to include data from existing buildings, too. The result: a set of performance-measuring criteria.

“Our partnership with EnviRenew provided the USGBC with a unique opportunity to re-imagine the Natural Talent Design competition to make a greater impact in communities close to home and abroad,” King says. “We’re all becoming increasingly aware that far too many areas in the world are in great need of assistance. Now we can see how a major design competition could have a meaningful impact, ultimately encouraging communities in areas of the world where there’s a real need for design and building innovation to make their own contributions in creating sustainable and affordable solutions.” (For details of the 2010 Natural Talent Design Competition, see “Small, Affordable, Performance-Measured.”)

Short-term results of the collaboration include an increase in competition entries from approximately 200 the previous year to more than 360, with a fair number from teams outside the United States. Results likely to influence future competitions include the incorporation of a design-build format into the competition, as well as standards for measuring the performance of entries. Equally innovative was the competition’s reliance on significant community input paired with the standards of an international architectural competition.

And while the Natural Talent Design Competition can’t yet match the Solar Decathlon’s ten measured and juried contest dimensions, it does incorporate one compelling element absent from the solar competition: designing, building, and performance-measuring entry homes in place, where the designers hope they will make life better for low-income residents and where they will remain sustainable and useful for many years.

Small, Affordable, Performance-Measured

The basic criteria for the USGBC’s 2010 Natural Talent Design Competition, cosponsored by the Salvation Army’s EnviRenew green-building initiative in New Orleans, couldn’t be much simpler. The design must:

  • consist of approximately 800 square feet of indoor living space;
  • cost no more than $100,000 to construct; and
  • qualify for LEED Platinum certification.

Entrants whose designs met these three criteria were enrolled in January 2010 in one of two categories—Student or Emerging Professional (less than five years out of school). The 367 submissions received were initially judged by 27 local USGBC chapters, resulting in 49 semifinalists, 23 in the Emerging Professional category and 26 in the Student category. Residents of New Orleans’s Broadmoor neighborhood then registered their preferences for winning designs, which contributed significantly to the selection process. In the end, four finalists—two in each category—were chosen by a ten-person jury composed of local community leaders and nationally prominent figures in green building and design.

The four finalists were announced in August 2010, and their designs were put on display at Greenbuild in Chicago in November 2010. Around the same time, construction began on the four final designs in New Orleans’s Broadmoor neighborhood on lots obtained through the Broadmoor Community Development Corporation. Once completed, the homes will be occupied by families previously recruited through the Salvation Army’s EnviRenew project and, prior to Greenbuild 2011 (to be held in October in Toronto), each of the four finalists will be judged on

  • budget compliance;
  • meeting LEED Platinum qualifications;
  • energy and water usage;
  • indoor air quality; and
  • occupant comfort.

The Grand Prize winner will be announced at Greenbuild 2011, and all four finalists will become model homes for the EnviRenew green-building initiative, which plans to build a total of 125 homes in five New Orleans neighborhoods. Prospective homeowners will be able to view the models and choose any one of the four final designs.

The idea of considering each design in context, taking into account lot size, surrounding architecture, landscaping, and other outdoor amenities, particularly in New Orleans’ decidedly hot-humid climate, determined the more subtle aspects by which each was judged. Detailed competition criteria included the following requirements:

  • The design must incorporate strategies for hurricane resistance and resilience, including a 150 mph wind rating and window protection.
  • The design must fit the context of the surrounding neighborhood, which consists largely of historic one- and two-family homes built on narrow lots. The house should be designed for a typical midblock, 30-foot x 100-foot lot oriented north-south.
  • The floor elevation must be no lower than 7 feet above grade, and the designer should carefully consider the relationship of the house to the street and to the neighboring houses.
  • The designer should also consider how landscaping will interact with the built structure. (Landscaping costs are not included in the $100,000 cost limit.)
  • Exterior elements, including ramps, benches, porches, etc., are restricted only by cost and local zoning regulations.
  • The designer should follow the Principles of Universal Design, with particular emphasis on features appropriate to older occupants.
  • The design must comply with the requirements of the American Disabilities Act.
  • Entries must include proposed methods of educating occupants about energy and water efficiency.

For more information:

For more information on the 2010 USGBC Natural Talent Design Competition, including a detailed description of judging criteria, go to www.usgbc.org/designcompetition.

To view presentations by each of the four finalists in USGBC’s 2010 Natural Talent Design Competition, go to http://openarchitecturenetwork.org/competitions/naturaltalent/2010.

For more information on the Principles of Universal Design developed by the Universal Design Center at North Carolina State University, go to http://design.ncsu.edu/cud/about_ud/udprinciples.htm.

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