Q&A: Tom Darden, Executive Director of Make It Right

On my second week in New Orleans, on a sweltering August day, I went on a bus tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, sponsored by the local AIA chapter. It was a dispiriting experience. While much of the city had seen its fortunes rise, the Lower Ninth, the neighborhood most affected by Hurricane Katrina, was […]

On my second week in New Orleans, on a sweltering August day, I went on a bus tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, sponsored by the local AIA chapter. It was a dispiriting experience. While much of the city had seen its fortunes rise, the Lower Ninth, the neighborhood most affected by Hurricane Katrina, was still a kind of lunar landscape, desolate and depopulated. There were, however, two notable exceptions: the Holy Cross neighborhood (which had seen about half of its residents return) and Brad Pitt’s Make It Right development, a bright cluster of about 75 houses, designed by a veritable who’s who of contemporary architecture: Kiernan Timberlake, Shigeru Ban, Graft, Morphosis, as well as a number of notable local architects.

Make It Right remains an active construction site, the ultimate work in progress. Led here in New Orleans by Tom Darden, the organization has set an ambitious goal: to complete all 150 houses by 2014. (They plan to break ground on a Frank Gehry-designed house soon.) While working on the Game Changers profile of Tim Duggan, Make It Right’s landscape architect, I interviewed Darden. The 32-year-old executive director talked about the background of this seminal project, its unforeseen challenges, and its potential for global impact. An edited version of our talk, conducted at the Make It Right offices, follows.

Tell me how you got involved with Make It Right.
I heard about the idea from Bill McDonough. He is a friend of my father. Bill had gotten a call from Brad Pitt, who had read Cradle to Cradle. Brad was working with the firm Graft on some ideas for going beyond their initial demonstration house project with Global Green. He thought that building green, affordable houses post-Katrina needed to be done on as large a scale as possible. So he contacted Bill and asked him to help think about that concept. My father was invited to New Orleans, with Brad and Bill and Graft, along with some local architects, like Steven Bingler and John Williams. Brad asked them to brainstorm about what affordable green houses in the Lower 9th Ward would look and feel like. Following that, I was sitting around the dinner table with my dad, talking about the meeting. He said they needed someone to do some due diligence work. I love to do that. My background is real estate development, and my favorite part of any project is looking at a blank canvas and trying to figure out what it can be done down the road. So my real estate partners and I volunteered to do that initial work. We spent a couple of months working on that, and gave a presentation of our findings to Brad. “This looks pretty good,” he said, “Can we do this?” We said it was feasible.

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Were there a specific number of houses?
One hundred fifty homes was the original number. Brad, Bill, Graft and the local experts had settled on that number. They thought it was sizeable enough to have a catalytic effect, but small enough to be achievable. My research involved looking at infrastructure, meeting with community leaders, talking to them about the concept. At that point we hadn’t determined a site, but we were looking at several locations in the neighborhood. Brad wanted the work to be inspirational for the community, given that there wasn’t anything planned for the area near the levee breach. We evaluated the additional risks associated with rebuilding there, but thought that if we built the houses off the ground any additional risk would be outweighed by the symbolism associated with rebuilding in the area. This was something that Brad felt very strongly about.

How were you greeted by the neighborhood during that initial phase? With skepticism, enthusiasm, hostility?
All of the above. I’ll never forget the first community meeting that we had. We were in the gutted out basement of a house, and the owner said, “This is my house. This is where I used to live. I don’t know who you are, or why you’re here. But I’m sick and tired of people coming in and saying they’re gonna do something to help, and then they never do.” Brad did a great job of showing his sincerity and by the end of that meeting, the same guy came up to me with tears in his eyes. He shook my hand and said, “I believe you. I believe you’re going do what you say you’re gonna do.” That’s been our motivation—just keeping this promise that we made. Of course, we also had people that were totally enthused by the idea. “This is fantastic!” they said. “We’re living in FEMA trailers. Please come help us!” There was a lot of skepticism, but at the same time a lot of support.

When did Tim Duggan come on?
Tim got involved when we were building those first six houses. He was with BNIM at the time and they had offered to design a playground. So along with that effort we started looking at landscape options. We soon realized that we could get almost a disproportionate number of LEED points just by being smart with the landscape strategy. So we went all out in that regard for those early houses. It was important that we had that skill set at the table. There were a lot of people that were very inspired by those first six houses. I remember thinking: “God, this is only six houses. We have so many more to build!” But Tim saw the vision and got inspired by it.

Tim mentioned the complicated land issues surrounding Make It Right. Talk about those challenges.
One of the things we heard early on from the residents is that they were very worried about outside entities coming in and land grabbing. So when we acquire a property, it’s a temporary acquisition. We acquire it to build a house on it, then we sell it to a family, who may have lived a few blocks over. That’s our strategy for density creation. So we’ve proven over and over again that we’re building for a family who lost their home during Katrina. Our first option is, if they want to rebuild on the lot that they own, then that’s what we’ll do. That’s how we got around that concern early on. We worked with families who owned their properties and built for them first. That made it complicated from a landscape planning perspective, because it was scattered sites. It’s hard to assemble contiguous property there. Our first challenge was property control, and then it was how we would actually build the houses.

Your goal is to build 150 homes and it looks like you’re going to do that. But there’s another legacy here, research and development.
It’s more than just the houses. One of the benefits of this effort is that there are a lot of folks who come to us and want to demonstrate their new products. It’s something that we try to encourage and cultivate. We host summits where we call in manufacturers and say, “Show us your newest and greatest innovation” and then we think about creative ways to integrate them into our buildings. We have a patent pending on a pervious concrete mix and this basalt road reinforcement. That’s one way we’re learning to go beyond the 150 houses and have an impact in the building industry, which we’re realizing is an important part of this effort.

Will you complete the 150 houses by 2014?
We’ve pushed and pushed the timeline back as we’ve encountered more problems. I think that we’ve got enough kinks worked out of the system that I feel strong about committing to that date. We’re not building this machine as we’re attempting to drive it anymore. It’s built. We’re fine tuning it.

And then what happens after 150?
I think that’s a funding issue. Whether we’re able to raise additional money to build more houses or continue to tap some of the public subsidies. Who knows what’s going to happen with the political climate? Will those sources disappear? Can we complete the 150? There are a lot of questions. We would love to do more if we can, but what will become more important to us is this community-beyond-housing idea. How do we make sure that this community is going to be viable, sustainable and vibrant for the long term? That’s what we have to insure. We wouldn’t want to just continue dropping houses if we saw other areas of the community that needed help.

What about initiatives in other cities?
One of the things that’s been really cool about this work is that we’ve been able to take some of what we’ve learned on the construction side and translate it to other efforts. We’re helping a non-profit in Newark, New Jersey right now construct a building that we expect will achieve LEED platinum with no added cost. In Kansas City, we’ve got a grant from the regional planning authority to work with the community to develop a plan for the redevelopment of a site in a transitional part of town. The next step will be to seek public funding, which we have submitted an application for. If we get the funding, the idea will be to build a LEED platinum, affordable project that helps to broaden our goals. In Newark it’s multi-family; in Kansas City, it’s mixed use. We’re trying to expand our expertise.

And in those two cities you have slightly different roles.
In Newark, we helped convene the funding and acted in an advisory capacity for a group that already had plans to build. Our role was to help them make it greener and more affordable, to take those strategies that we use at Make It Right and apply them there. Here in New Orleans, we’re fully project managing. Kansas City is somewhere in between. We’ll have more of a project management role than in Newark, but we still we won’t have as much of a presence as we do in New Orleans, where we manage every facet of the project.

It seems like Make It Right is going to have a life beyond the Lower Ninth Ward.
I hope so. Brad always had a much larger vision. Even at the time when we agreed on this 150 number—

I’ve heard that he wanted to do a thousand homes.
I think that he certainly sees Make It Right as having a longer life. Originally the 150 home effort was designed to be dismantled when the work was done. We’d love to put ourselves out of business, if you will. But let’s say that we finish our goal and there’s no more resources to continue work. Well, we want to make sure that the community can stand on its own without our support. We’ve also realized that we do have the potential to impact the building industry in a positive way. So I would love to continue to exist at the cutting edge of green building.

One thing you should create is a open source website for green building.
Sharing information is a very important part of what we’re going to do, but we haven’t formalized any plans yet. It’s been a challenge in some ways. In order to capture what you’re doing, you have to stop and write down what you just did. How do you do it real time without slowing down the actual work of building houses? In the next couple of months we’re going to spend more time developing it. We will take what we’ve learned and make it public.

Video of Tim Duggan on Make it Right

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