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A phoenix out of the ashes

18 Mar 2010

Many successful innovations arise out of crises, which create remarkably fertile opportunities for reinvention. Post-Katrina New Orleans is no exception. But unlike the legendary phoenix, which relies upon magical intervention, how does rebirth of a living, breathing city take place?

New Orleans’ Green Coast Enterprises, a nationally recognized New Orleans real estate development company, has reworked the traditional real estate development business model to drive towards environmentally sound and affordability focused residential buildings. Will Bradshaw and Reuben Teague co-founded GCE in 2007.

For Bradshaw and Teague, the immense destruction of Hurricane Katrina underlined fundamental weaknesses in building structures that generally plague the Southeastern region of the United States. In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, about 70 percent of buildings in New Orleans failed.

We are reminded that the force of hurricanes will only increase as climate change intensifies in the future. Meanwhile, residential homes are still being built with wooden frames. These “stick buildings” can be built cheaply because materials are in abundant supply, but they deplete our natural resources and are not built to last.

In an interview, Teague voiced his concern for traditional building and real estate development methods that are detrimental to both the environment and the communities that they impact. The real estate industry is heavily dependent on natural resources. Any policy or market shift that drives up cost of raw materials generally upsets the real estate sector.

America’s biggest builders find lucrative profits in building disposable homes that are made of wooden stick frames. GCE, on the other hand, advocates steel frames and recyclable inorganic materials instead in its building practices. These materials are not only environmentally friendly, but prevent many hazards in the home such as mildew, termites and water collection.

This is not to say that durable, environmentally friendly houses cannot be built with wood. GCE has also built houses with wood pressure-treated with borate, which protects the wood from moisture and termites (borate is non-toxic to mammals). Wider boards also allow for greater structural strength and thicker insulation. Voila! Many of the benefits of inorganic materials without having to retrain your builders and contractors.

Teague presented a fascinating analogy when he described to us the necessary change that needs to take place in real estate development. Take for example the automobile industry, a sector that at a certain point in time believed cars should not be built to last too long so that consumers will keep purchasing. Despite Toyota’s recent safety failures, the company’s focus on quality and longevity in its cars made it an extremely successful company and the world’s largest automaker. The real estate industry has not experienced this fundamental shift in mentality on a large scale. Unfortunately, the two most important factors that determine home-buying are the size of the house and how much it costs. Ultimately, quality is not a large part of the equation.

At a high level, GCE hopes to challenge this innovation-phobic real estate sector. Bradshaw and Teague both believe that durable, safe and affordable residential homes can be built in a way that is accountable to our environment and our communities.

Teague and Bradshaw also feel committed to create energy-efficient homes through small steps such as tightening building enclosures such as windows, doors, and roofs to drive down energy costs. GCE currently partners with Project Home Again, a nonprofit dedicated to building homes for displaced New Orleans residents. GCE has managed the development of 45 affordable, durable and energy-efficient new homes with Project Home Again in the Gentilly neighborhood.

Another current project involves the Salvation Army, the leading funder of the recovery effort in New Orleans. GCE is managing the Salvation Army’s EnviRenew Green Home Sustainability program and working with low-income homeowners to upgrade their homes to become more energy-efficient.

Green Coast Enterprises adheres to the “triple bottom line”; company ethos: accountable to profit, community and the environment. GCE emphasizes deep partnerships with all stakeholders in a building project, including the local government and neighborhood, community development groups and nonprofit organizations, among others.

Reuben called the company’s relations with partners (a kind of open-source real estate development) their “pillar of success.” Building such relationships and consensus is time-consuming and therefore many real estate companies may shy away from such work. But Bradshaw and Teague’s inerrant focus on collaborative relationships is an essential and innovative aspect of GCE.

A focus on partnerships is a long-term investment. As such, GCE is an active participant in shaping New Orleans’ sustainability policies. Bradshaw is a member of the Mayor’s task force on sustainability so that GCE can extend their impact as a company beyond the reaches of their projects.

GCE’s evaluative process of projects based on what it can achieve for the environment, the community, and the people is something that both Teague and Bradshaw hope to systemize. Teague critiqued the green movement in real estate, centered on single, glitzy projects that generate hype and excitement. But it’s a movement that lacks the ability to be consistent and replicable. What Teague and Bradshaw hope to do is make the GCE way of real estate development a process that can yield positive results every time.

Lina Feng and Cami Ratliffe are Trinity seniors. Their column runs as an online exclusive.