Jill Fehrenbacher

INTERVIEW: Workshop APD's Sustainable New Orleans

by , 06/10/11

In August 2006, Global Green and Brad Pitt announced the winners of the Global Green Sustainable Design Competition For New Orleans. The winning proposal, titled GreeNOLA and submitted by Matthew Berman and Andrew Kotchen of Workshop APD, calls for six houses and two multifamily units which employ energy-efficient appliances, solar power, and recycled building materials, as well as providing social services like child care and a community garden. Workshop APD’s proposal is designed to cut pollution and decrease operating energy use by 50-60 percent, compared to traditional homes. The success of the GreeNOLA design is its seemless integration of cutting edge green technology with the traditional building wisdom of the region. This combination creates healthy and affordable new residences for displaced residents of New Orleans. We sat down with the two architects to discuss their winning design proposal for rebuilding in New Orleans – read on for the interview after the jump.


Matthew Berman, Andrew Kotchen, Workshop APD, Global Green Design Competition, New Orleans, Brad Pitt, Sustainable Design for New Orleans, Green Building, Green Design

JILL: So tell me about your design proposal for the 9th ward in New Orleans

Andrew: It started with researching the 9th Ward and the Holy Cross area, where our site is. In our research of the greater context we wanted to propose new ideas for how to redevelop the area by bringing commercial, bringing in retail, revegetating the landscape, creating more of a linear park across the river and then begin inserting our ideas onto the site. Our focus was to achieve a greater understanding of prefabricated modular construction – these pieces end up evolving and becoming three-dimensional elements and then getting assembled in an infinite configuration and through a series of selection processes you end up with a structure.

Jill: So there’s a market and community center on the lower level of the site?

Matthew: The idea is that this whole open corner would be the farmer’s market and public area as it reaches out into the rest of the community. Then you come into the interior of the site: parking, day care, children’s play space, market with the community food production area; again it’s sort of buffered by the other buildings. This is the bridge. It’s a community bridge that pulls you in from the rest of the community right through the middle of the site and up onto the levy. The idea is that the residents can control access to the site. We were intentionally trying to activate the site by pulling the community through it as opposed to walling off the site and creating an interior that’s only for residents.

GreeNOLA, GREENOLA, Workshop APD, Global Green Design Competition, New Orleans, Brad Pitt, Sustainable Design for New Orleans, Green Building, Green Design

Jill: Is it specifically designed to be affordable or lower income housing?

Matthew: It’s intended to be affordable housing, not necessarily lower income housing. It’s trying to be affordable housing through its sustainability. For example it was designed as a net zero site so that all of the energy production happens on site, and it’s done through affordable tax and more efficient systems that reduce the load- the energy load- so the idea is that nobody would have an electric bill.

Andrew: Net zero is the sewer waste and water, it’s all cisterns, we reclaim water, reuse gray water and recycle the water through the site. The idea is that nothing goes out and nothing comes in to the site.

Matthew: It’s also intended to be affordable through the design options. A lot of these single family houses are set up and it works well with the typical New Orleans prototypes, the shot gun house and the Creole cottage, but most of these houses have either out buildings or internal apartments that can be rented out and that’s how a lot of people maintain the affordability. So there were different ways of thinking about affordability.

GreeNOLA, GREENOLA, Workshop APD, Global Green Design Competition, New Orleans, Brad Pitt, Sustainable Design for New Orleans, Green Building, Green Design


Jill: So lets talk about the climate down there and the systems for heating and cooling. I know it’s really humid in New Orleans and people tend to use air conditioners. Is it possible to use passive design elements in this sort of climate?

Andrew: In New Orleans the humidity averages at 75% throughout the year so it is impossible to cool spaces without mechanical cooling. So it can’t just be passive ventilation and breezes blowing through – so we’re using a geothermal system that is combined with a Z-coil dehumidification system, which is essentially a pumped-up air conditioning system with a few other modules put onto it that’s more efficient.

So there is a form of mechanical cooling, which is supplemented by a geothermal drawing from the earth’s temperature and circulating it back up through the structures. And we’ve oriented our buildings so that they can get maximum cross ventilation. That’s why everything has this shotgun effect. We have louvers systems at either end so that at certain times of the day you can open and close them to minimize heat gain, but open them for breezes to come through. All these strategies have been in use for 30 or 40 years. We’ve just packaged it together in a place that’s never heard of or seen it before.

Jill: Have you done any market testing or interviewing of residents of the area, or anything to get a sense of what local New Orleans residents think about your designs?

Matthew: Yes- the second phase for this competition was very intense and very well choreographed. They invited the six finalists down three separate times to New Orleans to meet with design jury members, technical jury members, and community groups.

We made several presentations to community groups over this six-week period — where we would go down initially with our first boards, an hour presentation where we talk for ten minutes and then respond to questions with answers and really try and develop and flesh out what their needs are and their interests are. So we definitely got to know them and develop a really good rapport and understand their needs and desires.

GreeNOLA, GREENOLA, Workshop APD, Global Green Design Competition, New Orleans, Brad Pitt, Sustainable Design for New Orleans, Green Building, Green Design

GreeNOLA, GREENOLA, Workshop APD, Global Green Design Competition, New Orleans, Brad Pitt, Sustainable Design for New Orleans, Green Building, Green Design

Andrew: Global Green has set up an operation down there that sponsors of the competition and they’ve done a lot of community outreach where they’ve done several presentations. So, the competition is on the heels of them already being there for about four months and trying really to establish this notion of sustainability.

Matthew: We were very successful at listening to what each of the constituents had to say and filtering it through our own ideas to see, to work those things in so that we felt comfortable with the product we were producing, but we also felt responsible about what it was that we were contributing down there.

We are going back again next week – this is all really exciting for us. We do most of our work in high-end single-family residential custom architecture. This is a larger scale and a totally different opportunity so we just embraced it. Construction should start in the spring of next year.

Jill: So much as I hate to do this, I have to ask: What was it like working with Brad Pitt?

Andrew: He was really nice and seemed to know what he was talking about, honestly. A lot of architects are skeptical about Brad Pitt’s sudden interest in architecture – but I have to tell you that from what we could tell, he seems pretty devoted to the cause of sustainable design, and of course the celebrity interest just helps elevate interest in our project, and we can’t argue with that!

GreeNOLA, GREENOLA, Workshop APD, Global Green Design Competition, New Orleans, Brad Pitt, Sustainable Design for New Orleans, Green Building, Green Design

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4 Comments

  1. lazyreader June 6, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    In the past,local industries supplied elaborate but mass-produced brackets and other ornaments for shotgun houses that were accessible even to homeowners of modest means. It gave these people a sense of value to the community. Those Workshop designs above….I don’t think they have much aesthetic quality. The entire house is the decoration and the details are watered down. Not as elaborate.

  2. lazyreader June 6, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Exactly, affordability is going to be crucial to the original inhabitants wanting to live there. I was watching an episode of “This Old House” where they were renovating a Shotgun house in New Orleans that had been damaged after Katrina. I forgot if the house was purchased by new tenants or if they lived there prior to the storm. Anyway the architectural quality of that house is so better than the stuff above. Some of them are actually very nice.

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e1/Shoutgun_House.jpg

    The term “shotgun house”, which was in use by 1903 but became more common after about 1940, is often said to come from the saying that one could fire a shotgun through the front door and the pellets would fly cleanly through the house and out the back door since all the doors are on the same side of the house. Shotgun houses were often initially built as rental properties, located near manufacturing centers or railroad hubs, to provide housing choices for working class people. Problem was they became so associated with the very poor they eventually stopped building them by the 1930′s.

    On the Discovery Channel I saw that show where they rebuilt a house in Mississippi also damaged by Katrina. The house was built quickly in just a few days in a modular factory. They used advanced glues (or as the professionals call it….adhesives) and massive screws to secure its frames; no nails. They house is elevated8-10 feet off the ground on huge wooden stilts sunk 14 feet into the ground then filled with cement to make a base. That house ain’t goin nowhere. The wires, plumbing and fixtures were installed in the modular components before the installation on site. Wire components simply snap together when the wall panels arrive and plumbing simply screws together with no additional welding.

  3. tim ryan September 9, 2007 at 7:34 pm

    We have a process to build insulated concrete homes at competitive prices in mass production. Would like to forward this information to workshop/APD

  4. Bill December 4, 2006 at 12:31 pm

    It’s exciting to hear about more energetic input and assistance for those in need in New Orleans.

    Although my mother taught me that if you don’t have anything good to say, then don’t say anything at all,
    I have to point out that once again we have an award-winning design that has the right heart, but misses the boat in its execution.

    Most designs that I’ve seen come out of Katrina competitions are self-referential in nature, and their good ideas are expressed out of context.

    A project like this, in an area rich in cultural history, requires a regional thought that at least reflects some of the flavor of existing datum and proportions. I myself am a modernist designer, but Corbu bands of glazing and squat punched openings in no way evoke New Orleans or the Deep South.

    Can we designers and architects (leaders) show the outside world the considerate, economically feasible, problem solving, warm side of modern design? In order to sell green development, sustainable development, and modern design we need to reflect back on our appreciation of Louis Sullivan’s belief that “form ever follows function.” I don’t see forms that reference the Shotgun in this design; I see forms that reference our still limited vision of modular construction. The trailer perched atop this great mixed-use facility would most likely be torn off first in hurricane winds. The dramatic cantilevered shed roof is a good sunshade, but a storm wind could come under it and turn the roof into a flying carpet. That projecting roof could fold down in storm conditions to become a storm shutter. (Note: When designing in a hurricane zone, always think about Bernoulli’s Principle. Shed roofs perform “ok” in high winds if they have sufficient pitch and are correctly oriented, but the preferred roof style in high wind areas in the hip roof. A lot of research has been conducted on roof design since Hurricane Andrew wreaked havoc in 1992, and according to Jeff Burton, IBHS’ building-code manager, “If your concern is safety, then the odds are that a hip roof will be more wind-tolerant than a gable end.” — Interview with Herald Tribune)

    Also, the building appears to sit firmly on grade… I hope the ground floor is designed to blowout in storm conditions with high waters. We can’t let ourselves design scared, thinking only of how to address hurricane winds and water, but a project like this should exemplify form and means best suited for surviving such natural forces.

    Lastly, there is the issue of cost. Modular construction might take hold this time around, but pre-fab manufacturers closest to New Orleans will tell you themselves that modular construction still costs quite a bit more than site-built. We’re supposed to be helping those without the means to help themselves… affordable housing and low-income housing. This is a choice opportunity for us to stretch our creative muscles and take an active part in forming the new New Orleans, and though prototyping does cost more, what better time to make that impending change to the new system… right? But we cannot forget the essentials of the task at hand.

    Matthew of APD puts it as it is… “It’s intended to be affordable housing, not necessarily lower income housing. It’s trying to be affordable housing through its sustainability. For example it was designed as a net zero site so that all of the energy production happens on site, and it’s done through affordable tax and more efficient systems that reduce the load- the energy load- so the idea is that nobody would have an electric bill.”

    I doubt that this project could afford the technology to be self-sustaining and still be deemed “affordable” for whomever is footing the bill (be it federal, a private entity, or the end user). Even if the project is to be paid for by a federal grant, that money would go further in aiding more people if spent on a more economical scheme.
    Yes, in the long term the project will redeem itself by being considerate to the environment, and thrifty with it’s use of supplies and energy, but can it… or should it… be afforded now?

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