Global Green's Holy Cross Development in New Orleans

August 29, 2007

Two years ago Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and brought enormous devestation to the city and the region. Since then, numerous agencies and programs have been working on projects to rebuild and revitalize this region. An architect and online friend of mine wrote an excellent article about the recently publicized pictures for Global Green’s proposed Holy Cross development for the redevelopment of New Orleans.

This guest post is by Sarah Nagy. Sarah is in a position to be a much better critic of proposed New Orleans construction because she, too, lives in a hurricane-prone region (the Florida panhandle), and is directly acquainted with appropriate design for a Gulf Coast environment. I think her analysis offers an excellent review of this project, balancing the applause for what she calls ‘Sleek Contemporary Prefab Housing Solutions’ with some pointed criticisms of some of the apparent problems in the design.

The complete essay can be found on Sarah’s blog, Front Step Design.

[Disclaimer: As critical as this post will be, I want to applaud the folks involved with this project for their initial feelings of goodwill, their obvious effort, and all the good green decisions that lie under the aesthetics.]

To look at the images of these houses, Holy Cross is clearly located on the rural prairies of Southern Louisiana. Each of these houses will survey 20 acres. But enough sarcasm. The situation, to anyone who has been there, looks more like the pictures below (from The Urban Conservancy).

The Holy Cross graphics show a narrow house that might fit in an empty shotgun lot. It’d be nice if they showed other houses around it. It’d also be nice if they could ‘age’ the finishes – because as in the Urban Conservancy bottom left photo, everybody in town knows what the ordinary weather does to buildings, and that if those buildings don’t look more charming with peeled paint, mildew and warped wood, they’ll be regarded as slummy. Remember, new and shiny doesn’t last. ‘Sustainable’ means ‘last a long time’.

On to the building. I suppose that monoslope roof w/solar panels faces south, for best solar orientation. Fine. And the next building to the north, #98, its roof will reflect light into those clerestories of #100. Is that okay? Speaking of clerestories, are they operable, to heat-chimney the famously sultry New Orleans air through the structure? Doesn’t look like it. Let the house be a ‘machine for living’ – don’t make people live in a machine.

Cross-ventilation was all the pre-AC shotgun house had – again, windows don’t look large enough to encourage this effect? I can tell you from experience that awning windows suck at letting a breeze in. How about a nice double-or triple-hung with the top sash up against the ceiling, like those oldies in the French Quarter? Examine historic solutions and benefit from generations of testing.

Daylighting: You’re okay here, mostly due to the skinnyness of the form. Good. Overhang on the south side looks pretty good for summer – but your heat gain on the east/west upstairs is going to be tremendous. Better spec solar shades and maybe some sort of awning. However, that south overhang looks too deep for winter heat gain, and there isn’t enough glass on that side to get it. But perhaps there’s enough appliances and people to heat the house in the winter. It does actually get cold enough for central heat in New Orleans. Plan for all expected extremes, not just the famous ones.

Materials: All those thin horizontal slats had better not be local pine, since they’ll warp beyond recognition. And if they’re exotic, you’ve blown your green credential. Perhaps they’re recycled something. Foam insulation, BluWood, PVs, water cisterns, recycled flooring, low-VOC paints = all good. Fiber-cement siding~ iffy. Great for durability and users know what to do with it (paint it! not too often!), but the Portland cement manufacturing process is hugely polluting, and the stuff is awfully heavy to cart around the country. Do they make this stuff local to New Orleans? I don’t know. At least they can bring it in directly from the port. Pursue ‘technological improvements’, but with skepticism.

Systems: A SEER of 10??? [Referring to the energy efficiency rating for the air conditioning equipment.] Hello, what year is this? Illegal in Florida, where 13 is the minimum. 20 if you can afford it (and these government programs should be financing such purchases). Tankless water heaters, good – but solar water heaters are the same initial cost, can be multi-tasked for space heating, and are not mentioned. Use money efficiently, in every direction you can think of.

All that said, I am really an optimist (surprise!). Therefore I have perfect faith that people will pick and choose lots of wonderful ideas that are featured in this program and recombine them into better and better holistic solutions than any architect can devise by himself. Hold off the hurricanes for another couple years, and stand back – housing is finally going to change.

Link: Front Step Design