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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

What should a NOLA house look like in 2020? - [Curbed New Orleans - All]

Bathed in subtropical sunlight, Lake Pontchartrain’s south shore appears much as it has for almost 200 years: saltwater and sky stitched together by the occasional leaping fish, punctuated by a small wooden lighthouse.

An occasional speedboat breaks the illusion of timelessness. So does the fact that after Hurricane Katrina, the lighthouse was raised on 17-foot piles to accommodate flooding—both the sea surge associated with hurricanes and the flash floods that have become more frequent and severe in recent years.

New Orleans has always had to deal with annual river floods and hurricanes. But now, the below-sea-level city is sinking at a time when sea levels are getting higher, hurricanes are getting stronger, and floods are coming faster. And southern Louisiana is literally falling into the Gulf. According to a federal National Climate Assessment report, southeast Louisiana is at “exceptional risk from climate change effects.”

So what should a New Orleans home look like in 2020? How do we straddle the line between preservation and innovation? And what kind of home best mitigates the effects of climate change while protecting occupants from the deadliness of rising tides? We’ll examine a few types of housing stock—a retrofitted 1920s Craftsman home, a classic shotgun, a new condo development, and a warehouse-cum-artist’s studio—laying out the pros and cons of each in the era of climate change.

The origins of the Crescent City

Nestled in a crook of the Mississippi River on sediment deposited by its annual spring floods, New Orleans owes its existence to the same waters that are threatening to destroy it.

The majority of the city sits below sea level, with the exception of its oldest neighborhoods (the French Quarter, Marigny, Bywater, and parts of Uptown), which early settlers built on high natural levees.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Army Corps of Engineers built a system of levees to protect New Orleans from the Mississippi River’s springtime floods. But without the river’s sediment, New Orleans began sinking at a rate of up to 2 inches per year.

Around the same time, engineers drained New Orleans swamps with a series of canals and pumps. Architects populated these new neighborhoods (Lakeview, Lake Terrace, Gentilly) with midcentury modern homes and Craftsman bungalows that embraced garages, air conditioning, and national architectural trends but eschewed the features that had given New Orleans homes their signature look—and, more importantly, the same features that made it possible to withstand the water that was never far away.

“The movement after World War II of slab-on-grade construction, which you see in suburbs and newer parts of New Orleans, just wasn’t a good idea,” says Norma Jean Mattei, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of New Orleans.

Unlike shotgun homes, which were raised on stubby brick piers to catch breezes and accommodate the river’s seasonal floods, these homes’ concrete foundations were set in the marshy, spongelike ground. When the ground shifts, the foundations crack. And when the heavy summer rains come, these low-lying areas are the first to flood.

“Before the levees were built, the Mississippi River would get high, water spread out, and for three months out of the year, our plants were living in that,” says landscape horticulturist Tammany Baumgarten. “A lot of subsidence issues we face in New Orleans—collapsing houses, sinking streets—are because the sponge is dry. By not allowing water to enter the subsoil, the city literally sinks.”

Meanwhile, shipping channels and oil and gas infrastructure perforated the marshy coastline that had served as a buffer between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico’s hurricanes—as well as the site of countless communities. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost a Delaware-sized chunk of land: more than 2,000 miles.

Throughout its history, New Orleans has teetered on the brink of destruction from disasters, be they hurricanes or yellow fever epidemics. The city is here today because its early inhabitants responded to harsh conditions in a beautiful way: by building raised vernacular homes with wide porches, high ceilings, transoms. As the climate grows ever more hostile, what kind of homes work, and what can New Orleanians live in in order to ensure the city endures for another 300 years?

The classic shotgun: a home built for its uniquely harsh environment

Head to Jackson Square and you’ll find artists selling paintings of New Orleans’s most recognizable icons: fleur-de-lis, crawfish, and shotgun homes. So named because you could fire a shotgun through the front door and watch it come out the back door without nicking a wall, the humble, shoebox-shaped homes were built to maximize comfort in a humid subtropical environment that experienced river flooding three months out of the year.

“Those folks built their homes to work with the environment that they were living in,” says Mattei. “It was a city environment, but you had tall ceilings and transoms for air flow, so you could keep the inside as cool as possible.”

Shotgun homes were raised to accommodate floodwaters, and they often were built as doubles—a configuration that placed two mirror-image units under one roof, creating affordable housing and increasing density. Cisterns collected stormwater, which also mitigated flooding from heavy rainfall.

Often, these homes were built from bargeboard—rough-hewed wood sourced from barges that had transported cargo down the Mississippi River. Having served their function, these barges were disassembled and resold as affordable building stock—adaptive reuse long before the term came into vogue.

In the centuries that have followed since early New Orleanians built shotgun homes and Creole cottages (square homes with steep, gabled roofs and dormer windows, built by French colonists), the climate has only gotten harsher. But at the same time, the shotgun has fallen out of vogue. Modern homeowners demand privacy, which is in short supply in a shotgun home’s hall-less, linear configuration of rooms (a classic shotgun requires a guest to traipse through a bedroom or two to get to the bathroom). And central air conditioning has made a shotgun’s primary cooling mechanisms—transoms and windows to allow for cross breezes, high ceilings to allow warm air to rise—almost obsolete. The same features that made shotgun homes appealing during their peak in the early 1900s make them inefficient to heat and cool today.

Still, shotgun homes are an architectural style that made it possible for New Orleanians to exist safely and relatively comfortably in a flood-prone, humid subtropical region prior to central air—a set of conditions that could return, if the direst predictions by climate doomers come to pass.

The off-grid Irish Channel warehouse and old-school lifestyle

At her 7,000-square-foot residence-cum-studio, mixed-media artist Nicole Charbonnet says she cleaves to “that old template of living with your shop under your living space.” Charbonnet, a New Orleans native, devotes the bulk of the formerly abandoned mattress and broom manufacturing warehouse to her studio. She commutes from her small bedroom to her light-filled, industrial studio, where shelves stretch almost to the exposed ceiling beams, and textural, collaged canvases lean against the walls.

Common in the days of the 19th-century corner store, Charbonnet’s work-from-home model is regaining traction in the era of remote and self-employment as workers seek to minimize their carbon footprints. But that’s not the only decidedly retrograde aspect of her lifestyle. Her backyard also heavily resembles that of a 19th-century New Orleanian.

“I have rain barrels under gutters. I compost, but I have a pig and nine chickens, so there’s really not much food waste to compost because the animals enjoy it,” Charbonnet says. “The chickens are great egg layers. I go to the grocery story rarely in the summer, just for soy milk or whatever.”

Charbonnet’s vegetable garden provides most of her produce, and her off-grid solar system means she has no electricity bills. It also means that she has electricity even when severe weather knocks the neighborhood’s power out.

“The power goes off fairly frequently in New Orleans, and it’s nice to be able to hand my neighbor an extension cord if she needs to keep her fridge running,” Charbonnet says.

She doesn’t have to worry about flooding to the extent that New Orleanians in lower-lying neighborhoods do. Her location is in the high-and-dry Irish Channel, which sits on the Mississippi River’s natural levee. Charbonnet renovated the warehouse herself. She sourced recycled windows and doors from the Green Project and Habitat for Humanity and repurposed wood whenever possible. She shares the space with another artist, who rents a studio, and her son, who has his own apartment in the building.

“I love living like this. There’s a clarity, and it’s easy to focus,” she says. “It’s a very efficient way to live… Architecture reflects certain structures in our society, but it can also foment new ones.”

The tricked-out Craftsman in Fontainebleau

 Photo courtesy Seth Nerhbass

Patent attorney and New Orleans native Seth Nehrbass owns a circa-1920s raised-basement Craftsman home that was built for a world without air conditioning—which shows in the stucco-over-hollow-ceramic-tile construction that provides insulation and cave-like chill. A 100-year-old oak, a mantle of fig leaf ivy, and a system of 100 cistern-fed hanging baskets also shade the home.

“The house is easy to cool and keep cool,” Nehrbass says.

The oxymoronic-sounding raised basement is another New Orleans idiosyncrasy. In a city with a water table so high, you can’t bury a corpse, let alone build a subterranean rec room, it serves the functional role of a basement while raising the main living level, thus protecting it from floodwaters.

But Nehrbass wasn’t content to coast on his home’s intrinsic coolness, especially after Hurricane Isaac knocked his power out for four days in 2012. He added 30 solar panels to the terra-cotta roof, which supply the 2,400-square-foot home with power, reducing its dependence on the oil and gas industry. He also landscaped his yard with exotic and native plants that foster biodiversity. Four rain barrels keep the plants hydrated.

“Three of the barrels are drained by soaker hoses, so the rain slowly seeps into the ground, rather than running off quickly into the New Orleans drainage system,” Nehrbass says. “This helps a little with flood prevention, and with helping to prevent subsidence in our yard… Our yard has sunk over time, but allowing more water to soak in should help keep the ground moist enough to prevent or at least reduce future subsidence.”

Nehrbass’s home is a prime example of how older homes, which were built to be harmonious with a humid subtropical environment, can be retrofitted with 21st-century technology that combats climate change. And, as Nehrbass points out, that can be good for the planet as well as his wallet.

“[I made this addition] partly to save money, but also to have a smaller carbon footprint,” Nehrbass says.

The controversial new construction in the Irish Channel

 Photo courtesy Marty Brantley of Engel & Volkers

New Orleans has always capitalized on its culture, much of which it owes to its unique architecture and topology. So when it comes to new constructions and preservation, the conversation can get ugly. Solar panels still aren’t allowed in the French Quarter, and certain homeowners associations can be restrictive, especially those in historic districts.

“Our design guidelines have not dealt with sustainability in the past,” says Bryan D. Block, director of the Vieux CarrĂ© Commission, at a panel discussion about climate change and sustainable design. “That’s something that’s very much missing. It’s economically important [to address this] and important to us being good stewards of our city.”

But even in the most permissive neighborhoods, a new construction that deviates too much from the New Orleans vernacular can become the object of derision.

That was the case with architect and developer Jonathan Tate’s condo development in the Irish Channel. Built of corrugated metal to create visual consistency with the area’s neighboring warehouses, the freestanding homes fit together snugly enough to create high density, but loosely enough to harbor porches, walkways, and garages in the negative space.

Reactions were predictably vitriolic. “Lifeless generic architecture,” wrote one commenter on the Curbed NOLA Facebook page. “The aesthetics certainly don’t blend with the Irish Channel’s historical residential character,” wrote another.

But Tate’s objective wasn’t to build a row of Creole townhomes—or, in other words, create what architect Lee Ledbetter describes as “a Disneyland regurgitation of the past.”

Rather, Tate strives to meld the two and come up with something new that is built for its unique environmental challenges—just as the first shotgun homes were.

“When it comes to the paradox between climate change and historic archetypes, we are big believers in context,” Tate says.

For Tate, that means placing eco-friendly homes (insulated windows, tankless gas water heaters, ductless HVAC systems) on small, tight, often nonconforming lots. His homes snuggle three bedrooms and two bathrooms into 1,400 square feet without feeling cramped, thanks to smart design.

“We are trying to reverse the course of what’s happening to U.S. housing. It’s bloated and getting bigger and bigger,” Tate says. “How do you reduce the overall footprint of the home itself, but still make a livable home for somebody?”

Water management is also at the forefront of his designs. Tate aims to keep all stormwater on the site with ground treatments, rather than pushing it into the street.

But the dialogue between old and new is always on his mind.

“There’s a fine line line between making a home appear as though it were constructed in 2019, but at the same time feeling like it is part of a historic, pre-existing neighborhood fabric,” Tate says. “This isn’t just about the history of housing or replicating a norm or type. It’s about incorporating a new vision for what housing should be.”

Source: Curbed New Orleans - All

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