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It’s easier being green

31 May 2008

NEW ORLEANS — Green Coast Enterprises LLC is scheduled to complete its first New Orleans venture — an energy-efficient, storm-resistant four-plex condominium on Fortin Street in Mid-City in mid-April.

“We believe that it’s time for Americans to rethink the way that they live,” said Reuben Teague, principal with New Orleans-based Green Coast. “Hurricane Katrina should be a wake-up call for everyone that the old way of building houses probably won’t be able to withstand the climate changes we face with global warming.”

The term green is synonymous with safety, durability and healthier, more efficient spaces that are more affordable, said Will Bradshaw, Green Coast president. “If you are going to rebuild here, it is imperative to think about the best styles and processes that made a lot of these old buildings remain standing, the best processes and technologies of new building and how you can put those two together,” he said.

The Arabella, which can be seen online at www.TheArabella.com is a steel-panel, fully-connected building that contains no structural wood or cellulose-based products, boasts continuous exterior insulation and has a finished floor elevation above the base flood level. It is designed to be termite-, mold- and wind-resistant and 40 percent more energy efficient than traditional designs, and priced at $216 per square foot.

The Arabella will be showcased before a national audience in May when the National Association of Homebuilders Green Building Conference comes to New Orleans.

When Green Coast broke ground on The Arabella last September, the project was chosen as the NAHB pilot project to establish a verifiable certification program around its NAHB Green Building Guidelines. Those guidelines have been in place for local Home Builders Associations and contractors since January 2005, but no standardized certification existed.

In October, NAHB posted online certification methods, as well as building guidelines and options for construction methods and materials.

“We are very confident the guidelines themselves produce green homes. Our members have already built about 100,000 green homes nationwide,” said Calli Schmidt, NAHB’s director of environmental communications. “We are taking the guidelines to the next logical step by establishing cost-effective verification. We are trying to make sure the green is authentic without being high priced. Green building will never catch on unless it is cost effective.”

NAHB also named a dozen cities where builders will be tasked with testing verification methods. In New Orleans, the verification is being done through the Home Builders Association of Greater New Orleans’ Crescent City Green program, said John Luther, executive vice president of HBAGNO. Throughout the country, most people don’t know how to define green, Luther said.

“The NAHB has done a remarkable job of coming up with some criteria that they want to be used nationwide. After the certification process is determined, most reasonable minds will say OK, if you apply some of these techniques, we are approaching what most people say is green.”

Hurricane Katrina prompted an influx of new builders to the Gulf Coast. “Since the storm, we’ve got lots of people running around saying lots of things are green or energy efficient, but are they, or are they not?” Luther said.

In addition to setting guidelines for certification, the NAHB program will provide builders and homeowners with a road map for local resources for materials, suppliers, climate-specific enhancements and even finance options for certain elements like energy efficiency ratings, said Hampton Barclay, Crescent City Green’s director. “This will make building green a reality,” he said. “As a city, I think it’s very important that we can send a message through our program that we are rebuilding our city stronger, safer and greener than before.”

Practical tools to get the job done are exactly what contractors need to build green, Bradshaw said. “One of the big problems for contractors is insurance and call-backs on new materials,” he said. “Contractors don’t want to use new materials because they aren’t sure how they will function. If it’s new, you’ve never seen how it works, and you don’t know how to install it, you won’t use, particularly in a market with a lot of work.”

Lack of familiarity with materials, knowledge about installation and uncertainty drive up the cost of building green, Teague said. “That means not only may it increase labor costs, but subcontractors may not be able to give an accurate bid.”

For example the contractor on The Arabella construction discovered that to avoid fraying, it was necessary to install plastic grommets in the steel panel cutouts before installing the electrical wiring. In the case of wood studs, the contractor would have to drill holes before running the wiring. In the case of the steel panels the holes were pre-drilled, but the sharp edges hadn’t been a problem until it was time to pull the wire.

“It’s a just a different thought process,” Bradshaw said.

Through this test project, Bradshaw and Teague have learned a lot about their design and engineering, and expect they will be able to deliver their next project more affordably than $216 per square foot.

Teague and Bradshaw are also serving as project management on Project Home Again, a $20-million philanthropic project aimed at bringing families back to Gentilly. The project broke ground Feb. 26.

PHA’s homes are models of sustainability; they incorporate advanced materials and concepts, will rely less on the electrical grid for their needs, and will outlast future storm events,” Teague said. “The homes, designed by our local allies FutureProof, will also make a stunning visual contribution to the post-Katrina landscape.” FutureProof also designed The Arabella.

Next, Green Coast is looking at ways to rebuild neighborhood centers in the New Orleans area, Teague said.

“The greenest way to build is to preserve what you’ve got,” he said. “We’d be trying to do as much renovation as possible. There are ways of retro fitting green systems into older buildings, making them less flood prone by moving critical electrical systems above the flood level, floating raised floors, replacing windows with energy efficient ones and adding insulation.”

Bradshaw and Teague feel like residential construction in New Orleans won’t be as grim as the rest of the country, considering the subprime meltdown and recession.

“I think this is a good place to be now,” said Bradshaw, citing the combination of inexpensive federal money (such as Community Development Block Grants and low-interest loans) and experienced contractors attracted to the rebuilding.

“In the history of this country, there have been few times where there was an opportunity to rebuild an entire city,” Luther said. “The housing market has been relatively soft throughout the rest of the country. Once all of our ducks are lined up, we will literally be in the throes of a multi-year building effort in New Orleans. There is probably no other city in the country that will have that kind of market.”