NOLA's Make It Right Homes Go Wrong

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A Make It Right house in New Orleans with serious moisture problems

Hurricane Katrina barreled through New Orleans in 2005.  The levees failed, flooding 80% of the city and destroying many homes.  The low-income residents in the Lower 9th Ward were particularly harmed by the storm, many losing everything they owned.  Two years later, Brad Pitt started the Make It Right program.  Their objective was to build new homes in the Lower 9th Ward and make it a vibrant neighborhood again.

Fast-forward to 2018.  The homes are failing.  The owners have moved out of many of them.  And the lawsuits have begun.  The photo above is from the NBC News article on the failures and the lawsuits.

The number one failure with Make It Right homes

I haven't been there to look at them; nor have I read any forensic analyses of the failures.  But looking at the photos and reading about the failures, I think I know what their number one problem was.  My guess is that the designers of the homes (starchitects like Frank Gehry and Shigeru Ban) were trying to avoid water problems caused by floods but they forgot about the more common source of water:  rain.

According to the NBC article, eighteen of the homes had flat roofs.  They have since been replaced with roofs that have some slope.  Flat roofs can work and yes, they can even work in New Orleans.  Most commercial buildings have flat roofs.  But home builders and commercial builders don't build the same way. 

The other problem I see with many of the designs is a lack of overhangs.  That can result in a lot of water running down the walls.  Take a look at that photo above.  It's obvious that there's a problem with water running down the wall shown there. 

Again, houses with no overhangs can work in New Orleans.  But the risk is higher because you're putting more of the responsibility to control the water on the drainage planes and flashing details in the walls.  Keep the walls dry with overhangs and porches and those details don't need to be as robust.

As I stated above, the number one problem with these homes appears to be lack of control of rain water.  And that reminds me of Canadian building scientist Gus Handegord's famous quote:

The three biggest problems in buildings are water, water, and water.

The effects on occupants

The NBC News article states about the home in the photo above that "the roof deck-topped home...now sits abandoned — mushrooms growing from its split siding, wooden boards propping up its sagging roof."  And the residents interviewed for the article told NBC that "many of the Make It Right homes are rotting and dangerous. They complain of mold and collapsing structures, electrical fires and gas leaks."  

Those kinds of problems lead not only to a lot of repair costs but can also result in health problems.  The article says residents have had headaches, low energy, tremors, respiratory infections and memory loss.  Living in homes that get wet enough to grow mushrooms is not a good thing.

An unfortunate failure

I really wanted this project to succeed.  The residents of New Orleans had already been walloped by Katrina twice.  First, they got hit by the hurricane itself.  Then they got screwed by FEMA and "Heckuva Job Brownie."  These people needed something good to happen in their lives and Brad Pitt promised that.

Here's their vision statement:

Around the world, people are living in healthy communities and affordable, high-quality, environmentally sustainable homes.

They talked about sustainable, healthy homes and following the Cradle-to-Cradle approach.  They wrote a blog article on blower door tests.

Blower door test, screenshot from the Make It Right blog

Somewhere in their processes, though, they missed some important building science.  Controlling water is the first step in creating durable, sustainable, healthy homes.  And there's no good excuse for that.  The knowledge has been around for a while.

Before Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, Dr. Claudette Reichel undertook the building of a demonstration house at LSU in Baton Rouge, just up the road from New Orleans.  She called it LaHouse and brought in Dr. Joe Lstiburek, Wynn White, and other experts.  She became known as the Mold Queen and Lstiburek was called Moisture Elvis.  The whole goal of LaHouse was to show how to build a house in a hot humid climate like south Louisiana.  That meant preventing problems from floods, rain, humidity, termites, and all the rest.

LaHouse is still standing.  There's no mold.  They have events and classes and tours there all the time.  They got it right.

The Make It Right homes are in various states of decay.  Residents are moving out.  And I wouldn't be surprised if many of the 109 houses get demolished.  Given the problems, that may be the cheapest thing to do.  All because Make It Right seems to have made them wrong. 

Let's hope this isn't how the story ends.  Brad Pitt can use this as an opportunity to fix things.  He can start over, drawing on the expertise of people who really understand moisture.  And forget the starchitects and the fancy designs.  Just build nice homes with overhangs and porches that handle moisture appropriately for the climate.

Resources

LaHouse

Dr. Claudette Reichel's presentation slides from the 2017 Building Science Summer Camp (pdf)

Builder's Guide to Hot-Humid Climates

 

Related Articles

Air Barriers, Vapor Barriers, and Drainage Planes Do Different Jobs

Down and Out Is the Rule for Draining the Rain

Professor John Straube on Moisture Physics

 

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Comments

This is such a shame. As a native New Orleanian, when I toured these homes I was very disappointed that the architects totally ignored the historical vernacular and thought that the residents would feel at home in ultra-modern homes. So now they also have to realize that homes in humid tropical climates are built with pitched roofs, big eaves, lapped siding, and porches for a reason. That is why so many of them are still standing in New Orleans today. I know Make it Right had their heart in the right place and hopefully know they can create a community that is more durable.

Allison
Bailes

Yep.  I didn't mention that but yes, have lapped siding also keeps rain out of the walls.  If you don't have overhangs, that can be a big help.  So what did they do?  They used fancy cladding that looks like it has open joints so all the pressure to keep water out is on the drainage plane.  Some of the other Make It Right houses do have lapped siding, though, but still, the primary problem seems to be a lack of control of rain water.

AB,

Forget "Starchitects" is a potshot.

Many build inappropriate designs.

Ues, all of the architects who added designs that failed, before we consider the actual building techniques, these architects should face repercussions.

Vernacular architecture does show what works, overhangs, and what fails, walls that can not breathe out water that gets behind them.

As professionals let's take care not to malign "flat roofs or siding systems that when employed over rainscreen (lath) technology are known to allow proper drainage for the water that gets behind all exterior materials.

( Lap siding versus vertical siding, for instance. Look at barns, vertical or horizontal siding ? * recognizing the barn walls are most often open.on the inside. Vertical siding stays true and cups less often. )

There is much to learn from one another and these unfortunate which brings me to ask - did any of these homes perform well ?

JB Fraser
Architect, builder

Allison
Bailes

JB,

Everyone involved with the failures should face repercussions, not just the architects. 

I'm not sure of your point about not maligning systems that work. 

I, too, would like to know if any of the Make It Right homes performed well.  Some certainly had designs closer to the vernacular and might have been easier for residential builders to detail.

I used the term "starchitects" because I've seen it in multiple sources concerning this project, most often used by other architects.  I suppose I could have said "big name architects" or "famous architects."  Is "starchitect" really so offensive?

No, especially when warranted.

Building nearly flat roofs requires greater attention to detail than the semi-skilled labor that builds small cost effective homes is capable of. Allison pointed out the commercial buildings have flat roofs but those roofers don't work on houses and he is correct. However, in Europe they have been using EPDM for flat roofs on homes since the 1960's resulting in roofs that last much longer than what we put on homes in the US. It can be done correctly.

Allison
Bailes

EPDM membranes are a great choice for flat roofs but not the only good choice.  Helen Hardy Pierce gave a great rundown of what's available in her presentation at Building Science Summer Camp last year.  Here's the link:

Evolution Of Roofing Membranes (pdf)

I remember touring some of these houses both during and after construction. It was very evident that the contractor didn't understand the details that were necessary to make these types of homes work. Look at the modern homes people like Matt Risinger build and you can see that it can be done right but it takes extremes both in installations and materials. These homes were built by contractors using labor and materials typical of tract home construction. They didn't get the details right. This can be problematic in typical homes but becomes catastrophic in these over designed architectural show pieces. It is a real shame, because I think the foundation really did mean well.

Shawn - if this is true, I would ask the question "Why?" Project management axiom - your solution can be quick, good, or cheap; pick one. If the underlying emphasis was on "cheap" (the reason the labor/building materials you suggest were used; pertaining to "affordable housing" which is a euphemism for low-income homes where residents have no other options), then it should be no surprise that this effort failed. If the underlying emphasis was on "quick" (immediate need), then again the long-term results should not be a surprise. It has been demonstrated that you can build "affordable", good-quality homes (even quickly in an enclosed factory) but what suffers is size. Not many want to live in a "tiny house" the size of a medium travel trailer. So maybe the true long-term solution for flood-prone Gulf/Atlantic Coast low-income areas are mass-produced, very good-quality, very small houses perched on highly elevated platforms/foundations. Doesn't sound too appealing to me. Or you could think of multiple-unit housing vs single-family housing to reduce the cost per square foot and increase size, but this smacks of government "project housing".

As the Subject Matter Expert for Historic Green, a USGBC recognized organization dedicated to rebuilding the Lower 9th Ward & NOLA sustainably, I could also see the defects in design and construction techniques used for the MIR homes. Many of the older homes in the Lower 9th were built with 'Barge Boards', which are the boards used to build turn-of-the-century barges (without motors) that were then disassembled and reused as home building materials. Barge boards were comprised of Cypress tree wood that is a highly water-resistant and durable wood. Barge boards were installed as lap siding, floors and structures and could withstand the inclement weather found in NOLA for decades. Newer products, such as siding made from combining sawdust and plastic compounds, seem like they would do well in wet climates but I have seen many of them fail. I know how resilient the Lower 9th Ward residents are and so I expect most of the MIR homes will be either saved or salvaged. To be honest, it is not easy to design and construct homes that can resist the weather and the termites/destructive pests found around NOLA and coastline areas. Information about Historic Green can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/historicgreen/

The desire to build green homes, help people, save energy, do great design are all for nought unless the core guiding principle is "Everything is connected." A building science approach recognizes that building envelope, drainage plains, foundation, crawlspaces, basements, attics, roofing, controls, appliances and more all influence each other. A blower door is a great tool, but it's only one of the necessary steps in making a building work right. Lest we just pile on the MIR crews, the real elephant in the room is that mistakes made on these homes are made all over the country, even now, in both local vernacular styles and contemporary designs. We see it in our region (SW Virginia) as well. Let this be a signal to the market as a whole - and not merely New Orleans - that building science is here to help, and building scientists are the architecture, engineering and construction sector's vital ally. They fail to recognize this at their own - and their clients' - risk, because if the don't, the unfortunate result is that the legal and insurance sectors will (and do).

Allison, are you sure that La House predated Katrina? I saw some of the first presentations on it a while back and I though it was a response to Katrina.

Allison
Bailes

Carl, at Summer Camp last year, Claudette said they started before Katrina and were interrupted by it.  Here's a slide from her presentation:

Claudette Reichel's sustainable, resilient house project at LSU, LaHouse

Maybe they should hire Joe....

It looks like a lot of stupid things were done in the name of a Hollywood star, but even if these houses were built properly for this climate, I doubt that it would have helped when the next hurricane hits this area. Katrina was proof that houses shouldn't even exist in the Ninth Ward. We will learn the same thing about much of coastal Carolina in the next few days, but I am sure that we will rebuild there with my tax money also.

I was down in NOLA after Katrina getting to tour some of these homes. I remember being struck at the time of the lack of overhangs and porches and design strategies to not just keep out the rain, but also reduce that cooling load brought on by that hot southern sun -- you know, shade. It seemed a pretty obvious oversight for even a newbie like me (only 3 years into my construction industry work) -- I'm truly sorry to hear of them failing. I will say there were multiple local building scientists and raters working on other homes at the time in the same area, and that there are plenty of local resources to get these right. Here's hoping the renovation / re-build team utilizes these resources this go-round, and does their due diligence to honor the local vernacular.

The TreeHugger website recently had an article about a new house in New York built to survive the next hurricane. It also has a flat roof deck in the middle, which the architect said, "The middle of the roof pours water off to the sides its open on the sides. So low pitch to the side, those are just open handrails water goes right under."

I whole heartily agree with your statement, "Controlling water is the first step in creating durable, sustainable, healthy homes. And there's no good excuse for that. The knowledge has been around for a while."

Why are eaves so frowned upon by architects?

So, so right. I looked at pics of those things when they were getting built and I knew it was going to be a disaster. My only other comment.....

Flat roofing is excellent nowadays. Any and all problems are about design, material, and method. Residential installers get it wrong constantly; the residential segment is always in the hands of it's least competent practitioners. Personally, there's flat materials and methods I prefer over pitched shingle systems. The industry has figured out all problems except how to prevent morons from messing it up.

I chuckled out loud at the term "Starchitects", and while I think there appears to be a great deal of validity to it, the credit for this doesn't rest completely on the architect's shoulders. 32 yrs ago in a moment of ego and temporary insanity, I left the Engineering profession to become a General Contractor and home builder. In those years in this profession, it has repeatedly amazed me at how little respect there is for the Laws of Physics among the Architectural industry. In my early years as a builder, I heard a lot about the ongoing feud between Architects and Builders. Whenever something went wrong (which was often), Architects blamed the builders, claiming they just didn't know how to read plans. Builders responded that Architects didn't know how a house should be built. It didn't take long to figure out there was validity to both sides of that story. There are many Architects, but only a few really good ones. The same can easily be said about builders. For decades I have had clients come to me with Architect's plans in-hand, either custom drawn or "Stock" plans. I have yet to see any that could be built as drawn, even those produced by some of the biggest names in the Architectural industry during that time. I even had one as a client about 15 yrs ago, and he kept saying the same to things throughout the build: "Gee, I had no idea this is how this stuff actually worked" and "Gee, I had no idea these things (labor and materials at various points) were so expensive. Somewhere in the process between concept and physical building there needs to be at least one individual with some years of actual building experience and a firm grip on reality. A good knowledge of physics - or at least the "Water runs downhill" concept is also paramount. In this case, with the "star" names and egos involved in the process, it's easy to see how that couldn't happen. In my experience, about 80% of the problems affecting homes built anywhere is water. It either it gets in - or gets out, where it shouldn't. You can't control the lack of skill on the part of the trades involved, although the building codes try harder and harder to legislate skill and good judgement. Nor can the effects of improper maintenance or natural disaster be controlled so a portion of that is always going to hold true. But if you don't start off with a sound design, it's doomed to problems from the start.

I'm just repeating my same message, STOP Building with Wood, especially in Humid, Damp regions.

I enjoyed reading your article however I was turned off by the "cute" aspersions towards "starchitects" and "screwed by FEMA". If you had left those kinds of slams and stuck to the empirical facts, I believe your article would have been more respected. Using the legal language of "malice with forethought" to ascertain the motives of the starchitects and FEMA people would have been beneficial if your motive was to indict them. For the FEMA slam, it is important to examine the entire chain of emergency management. Case in point is the Puerto Rico's Maria Storm relief efforts. Much of the emergency supplies have not been distributed as a result of local official's management failures. This same pattern was evidenced in New Orleans by the corrupt Mayor and local management officials.

OK, now that those points have been addressed, let's go back to a discussion of the empirically validated failures of the architects, builders and home owners. Surely, as you pointed out, the engineers/architects failed in their utilization of prudent building science. My personal opinion is that some of the old ways of building design are part of the "best practices" theory of building. You pointed them out accurately: porches, eaves, roof pitches and etc.. Needless to say, water is the enemy. Every bit of focus in design must be focused upon effectively and efficiently giving rain water an easy path away from the house and building with materials that eliminate opportunities for moisture to turn into mold. Additionally, other design ideas could be effectively employed to reduce the problems from flooding and rain. For example, raising the elevation of the habitual spaces above the 100yr flood levels. An example of this is the houses built on stilts in coastal communities in the Texas Gulf coast and the Atlantic seaboard. An example I experienced in Guam was the repeated devastation from typhoons destroying telephone poles and houses. Guamanians started making their houses and telephone/utility poles out of concrete.

I enjoyed reading your article and I found valuable content in it but in the eternal words of Joe Friday "Just the facts Ma'am!"

Allison
Bailes

Dave,

I enjoyed reading your comment but I was turned off by things you said or implied at the end of it.  First,  those "eternal words" words you attribute to Joe Friday never came out of his mouth.  It's true.  Just check Snopes.  Second, I'm not a woman.  Third, if you really do want just the facts, you're in the wrong place.  This is a blog and I have fun with it.

Finally, I'm not going to let this turn into a political discussion, so I will not be approving any comments that respond to your FEMA comments about New Orleans and Puerto Rico.  Plenty of people would disagree with your statements that blame the victims, but we're not going there in this space.

The Mandela effect is interesting. "eternal words" quotes that we are certain of, are wrong. Quotes that are from film and easily verifiable. Some are small changes, with one word that is different, some are bigger. Even the actors who filmed it remember it the way everyone else does. But rewatch the film and it is different. For this reason I try to make it a habit to verify any quote or fact before I post it. It makes me spend a lot of time in Code books. I'd rather prove myself wrong than be called out by someone else.

Enjoyable article and comments. Thanks!
As a residential designer who has designed in both traditional and "modern" idioms I wanted to touch on a basic point.
There are TWO ways to deal with the facts of Nature when designing/building a house.
1. Designing it the "traditional" way, with porches, overhangs, ... tends to work WITH the forces of nature to protect the building and its occupants.
2. Designing it the "modern" way, as described in this article, with detailing that does not take advantage of things like gravity, or water's natural tendencies, means that we must rely on high tech materials and much more complicated (and consequently more expensive) techniques. The result can be beautiful and striking modern architecture but almost always costs a great deal more.
For a situation like the reconstruction of New Orleans, where we are talking about building large masses of housing for people on low incomes, it seems to me really inappropriate to follow the second approach. The first, if done thoughtfully, can yield beautiful, convenient, and affordable housing.
I regret that marketing hype appears to have gotten a bit out of control. Inclusion of people like Frank Gehry can help to bring a lot of attention to a project. But people like Frank Gehry, a master at what he does, also need to recognize the limits of their knowledge and when to collaborate with other experts.

The imposition of an aesthetic that runs flat into the face of "common sense" and science-informed building practices needs to be treated with a bit of skepticism and to be thoroughly questioned. And yes, I acknowledge that both 1 and 2 above can be done badly or well. But 1, done well, is almost always cheaper than 2, at least in extreme climates like New Orleans.

As the uneducated hillbilly weighing in on this subject, it has been my observation that regional customs and construction details are "regional" for a reason. Even if the builder or subcontractor performing the work doesn't know why local customs work - they know that they do. This is precisely the reason that builders (and firefighters) are often reluctant to change, in that the consequences of failure can often too much to bear.

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