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Pitt Unveils Sustainable Designs for New Orleans

December 10, 2007

By Alec Appelbaum

Brad Pitt commissioned 14 busy architects to complete distinct designs in two months, told them to aim for a reusability standard so tough that only a handful of products meet it, and then demanded that all firms modify their plans however the client wants—if the client chooses their plans at all. A Hollywood brat ordering a new chateau? Not quite. This is how Pitt is helping rebuild a flood-ravaged New Orleans neighborhood with his “Make It Right” project, which last week unveiled 13 design models for replacing 150 houses in the Lower Ninth Ward destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Make it right project: Sustainable Design Prototype house, New Orleans
Image Courtesy Make It Right

Click here to see 13 of the prototype houses.

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Pitt inaugurated Make It Right in September and foundation employees have been working with 150 deed-holders, each of whom will pick a design and order modifications in the next several months. Architects include Adjaye Associates, BNIM, Constructs, Graft, KieranTimberlake, Morphosis, MRVDV, Pugh + Scarpa, and Shigeru Ban. Five local firms—Billes Architects, Concordia, Eskew Dumez Ripple, Trahan Architects, and John Williams Architects, which serves as executive architect for the whole project—also prepared plans.

All designs emphasize open porches, solar heat and light, and water resistance, but they differ in how they stack porches, detail roofs, and establish circulation patterns. That’s part of the goal, says Pitt spokesperson Virginia Miller: “The architects got a good sense of what was important. I heard a (deed-holder) say ‘I want my bedroom away from the front, for safety,’ but so many people wanted porches.” Among the individual prototypes’ unique features, Morphosis’ house can float while Adjaye’s stacks a porch, with carved walkways, atop a ground floor.

Make It Right hopes to start construction by spring 2008 and complete all 150 houses by autumn. The average cost of residences will be $150,000 and the foundation will coordinate no-interest loans to ensure that this price tag is capped at 30 percent of a deed-holder’s income. To subsidize construction, Pitt and film producer Steve Bing have promised to match up to $10 million in donations. The pair is also seeking sponsorship of materials or houses via the Web site makeitrightnola.org.

McDonough + Partners, whose “cradle-to-cradle” affiliates seek materials that biodegrade or offer eternal reuse, will help the foundation decide which donated materials offer the most economic and sustainable value. But William McDonough emphasizes that the goal with this project is to get people into durable houses rather than deliver a flawless prototype. “We’re looking at the full range, from stick-built through structural insulated panel,” he explains. “Designs will be reviewed through a cradle-to-cradle lens, but we’re trying to be realistic and humble about what we can do.”

Since the residences must be elevated five feet from the ground, to guard against floods, McDonough sees their ability to house future generations as a key measure of their success. “Part of the evaluation is the issue of social engagement,” he says of the designs’ porches, lawns, and close spacing.

This same model could work in communities elsewhere. To that end, James Timberlake, a principal of KieranTimberlake, says that he hopes Pitt shares the flexible designs with residents throughout the devastated Gulf Coast. “Our plans, along with several others, are a framework for personalization,” he says.

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