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Brand New Orleans, Please Contact Seller
Written by Brett Schlesinger    Bookmark and Share

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Friday, 17 October 2008 20:11

The work done so far to re-establish New Orleans has been a lopsided success. Streetcars resume as tour guides, funneling visitors past rejuvenated landscapes and southern style estates of the Garden District. If the tracks shifted by only a block, tourists would witness these mansions take on the form of façades, hiding the slum and squalor in their own backyards.

Non-profit organizations, church groups and community activists are responsible for most of the residential rebuilding. URBANbuild, a design team in partnership with the Neighborhood Housing Services of New Orleans, is amongst these grassroots efforts.

“Our intention is to aid in the reconstruction of New Orleans and to support the provision of quality affordable housing to underserved communities,” said URBANbuild, in their mission statement to the public.

In the winter of 2006, just a few months after the impact of Hurricane Katrina, Emilie Taylor returned to New Orleans to complete her Masters Degree in Architecture at Tulane University and join in the relief effort towards the future prosperity of the city.

Taylor was hired as the Senior Program Coordinator for Tulane City Center and subsequently, the project manager for URBANbuild.

“It was hard rebuilding after the storm, hard to find materials, hard to get anything,” Taylor said. “Everyone has been trying to do what they can, but the job is overwhelming.”

URBANbuild’s prototypical family homes have been built as monuments for change and models to entice further development. However, selling new houses in blighted and abandoned neighborhoods is complicated. The marketing, aimed at the local middle class in an attempt to diversify the areas and raise surrounding property values, is largely by word of mouth.

Still, URBANbuild has been successful in appealing to members of the community.

“The first prototype was purchased by Timothy Holmes, a police officer and New Orleans native,” Taylor said. “His motives were a conscious effort to rehabilitate a dangerous neighborhood, in which he had suffered a personal loss.”

The transformation can be construed as unfair for previous residents. When nostalgic intentions for accurate repair gave way to the reality of irreparable damage, many people had no choice but to leave.

“If it weren’t for URBANbuild, I wouldn’t be living here,” said Timothy Holmes, the current resident of the first design project. “Hopefully I’ll be able to give back and this will be one of the future growing neighborhoods in New Orleans.”

For those who remain in devastated surroundings, limited government aid has been more significant than floodwater brought on by Hurricane Katrina in exposing physical and social foundations that have been rotting for years.

“I’m just so scared somebody is going come with a lot of money and just buy this house, and that’s not what it was built for,” said Tess Lesai, a local resident whose daughter was denied an URBANbuild house by Neighborhood Housing Services because of low income. “Let the community come back.”

URBANbuild’s prototypes are modern and atypical of the traditional shotgun house, a New Orleans icon. Emilie Taylor acknowledges the new homes have received some criticism for their distinctive style, yet she defends reforming the outdated design.

“You can’t recreate the traditional shotgun style affordably without expensive attention to detail,” Taylor said. “Replicas tend to be squattier, watered down versions.”

Instead, URBANbuild has been utilizing modern technology with cost efficient and energy efficient materials in their construction.

The most recently completed project, at 1900 Seventh St., has structural insulated panels to provide warmth in the winter as well as ventilation for the pervasive humidity. This natural alternative is meant to ease residents’ discomfort in an unanticipated loss of electricity.

“Building affordably or building with certain limitations does not mean the building should be boring,” said Byron Mouton, Co-Director of the URBANbuild design team. “In fact, as a designer you are required to be much more inventive.”

Upon visiting the completed URBANbuild project in the Garden District on Dryades Street, it is apparent the neighborhoods’ zip code is the only commonality with St. Charles Avenue.

This brand new dwelling stands out not because of its style, color, and material, but its structural integrity. It is hard to critique a modern design as being aesthetically out of place when it is one of few houses in the area with all doors and windows intact.


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