Getting It Right in New Orleans

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It’s gratifying to see that at least one of the housing reconstruction programs in New Orleans believes in context-sensitive design. Too many well-intentioned housing programs fall short when measured against the yardstick of humane urbanism. But Project Home Again, sponsored by the Leonard and Louise Riggio Foundation, is providing much-needed housing, while also helping to re-establish the special character that has always defined New Orleans neighborhoods.

Project Home Again has already built nearly 100 new homes, mainly in the Gentilly District. In addition to featuring high-quality, energy-efficient construction, the homes display a traditional New Orleans vernacular look. As a result, the new construction is contributing to New Orleans’s unique sense of place, knitting together neighborhood fabric that was badly torn apart by Katrina’s disastrous floods.

Spearheaded by Leonard Riggio, the founder and chairman of the Barnes & Noble book retailing empire, Project Home Again’s underlying mission is to develop a scalable affordable housing program that features energy-efficient construction and that fosters neighborhood recovery, while also supporting returning homeowners. The basic idea underlying Project Home Again’s low-cost, high-efficiency approach is to use passive energy-conserving features that complement natural ventilation whenever possible. Design details include strategically placed shading, ceiling fans in every room and double-hung, double-glazed, low-e windows – supplemented by high-performance mechanical systems, including dehumidification.

Further economies are achieved by limiting construction to a small number of basic home models – four so far – with sizes ranging from about 1,000 sq. ft. to 1,500 sq. ft. The designs, all based on traditional New Orleans housing types, were created for the project by John L. Schackai, AIA, a local architect with deep understanding of the city’s building culture. In addition to cross-ventilation and passive heat-reduction features, whenever possible, Schackai also incorporates good-sized, screened-in porches that can be used for sleeping.

What raises Project Home Again above humanitarian relief and places it in the realm of humane urbanism is the approach to exterior design. The exteriors are purposefully modest and intentionally avoid the “bold architectural statements” that characterize many of the houses of Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation.

Schackai’s designs blend seamlessly into the mix of surviving houses in the small communities that form the larger Gentilly neighborhood. As a result, the focus is not on “look at me!” architecture, but rather on healing the neighborhood by filling in devastated blocks in ways that emphasize the continuity of New Orleans’s tradition.

Through a holistic architectural design process, Project Home Again is doing more than putting a roof over people’s heads: It is also restoring communities and reviving a reassuring sense of place.