Blessed Bounty: Reflections on the Sustainable Design Competition

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Global Green CEO Matt Petersen recalls the design community's remarkable response to help New Orleans rebuild green.It was mid-July 2006, and I vividly remember walking through the first day of our design jury for the Sustainable Design Competition for New Orleans -- and just being overwhelmed with joy at all the incredible ideas and work represented. We had a tremendous response, thanks in great part to Brad Pitt's idea to launch a design competition calling on designers to re-imagine the rebuilding of New Orleans, which we paired with Global Green’s initial goal to adopt and bring back a neighborhood in New Orleans. 4,200 people signed up to get information, 500 people registered for the competition, and nearly 130 submitted actual designs.

It was remarkable to get that many submissions, given the ambition of our scope and short time frame. Yet designers -- some architects, some experienced, some just passionate to share their ideas -- put forth amazing ideas and visions for rebuilding New Orleans green, starting with the canvas we gave them: an empty 1.3 acre brownfield lot in the Holy Cross neighborhood of the Lower 9th Ward.

As I walked through the first 1/3 on our first day of judging, I was giddy with excitement, almost like a kid in a candy store, observing the work and ideas of so many great minds and designers. The next 1/3 of the designs brought the seriousness of the task to the fore; I was somber as I reviewed the next bunch, giving the serious work its contemplative due. As I made my way through the final 1/3, I was overwhelmed with emotion, and tears welled up in my eyes over the beauty of the work. The incredible effort represented, and sharing of their love of design, New Orleans, the environment, and more moved me. I calculated that hundreds of designers worked more than 20,000 hours on these designs we were considering and reviewing.

It was amazing, truly representing the best of humanity and the design community.

Originally, we were going to select five finalists at the end of the first round, but in the final moments of jury deliberation, we selected six finalists. This is also when I made an executive decision that would define much of my life for the last five years: Global Green would commit to building the winning design, which in the end was five single family homes, an 18-unit low income apartment building, and a community center in the Holy Cross neighborhood of the Lower 9th Ward. We would be the ONLY environmental nonprofit organization to actually build and develop affordable housing. Before this, we had been advisors for dozens of nonprofit affordable housing developers and cities, but we had not built any ourselves.

I also realized -- later on -- that it is VERY rare for the winning design of an open design competition to get built, as the design often proves difficult to build as submitted. And this is particularly true when the funding is not first in place.

Fast forward to the 2nd and final round of the design competition. On August 30, 2006, after reviewing the work of the six finalists and hearing their presentations to the jury and to community leaders, we voted on the winner, and two runners-up. We selected a design from a young firm out of NYC: Workshop/apd. Matt Berman and Andrew Kotchen's enthusiasm and embrace of our concept leapt from the competition boards, and resonated with the technical jury (made up of USGBC, AIA, and Global Green representatives) and the community. I was there to celebrate with a high-wattage press conference along with Brad, Matt, Andrew, and NOLA community leader Pam Dashiell (a hero who left us too soon).  Thus began the next phase of the journey.

At the outset of my journey to help rebuild New Orleans green in early September 2005, many thought I was crazy to think I could help this city that was so deeply devastated. But it made sense to all involved, including our board, that we begin to build the winning design. Looking back, I sometimes think I was crazy to make that commitment to build the winning design, given all the walls I'd run into at full speed while trying to build the design. Sometimes it was my own doing, running into those damn hard walls; at other times, other forces deemed it a good idea to put them in our path. The lessons I've learned are innumerable: about perseverance in the face of adversity, about building anything, about New Orleans, and yes, about human nature. Some counseled me along the way to help me succeed and some advised me to reconsider with plans to proceed, given the challenges to reach the finish line.

Our first LEED Platinum, solar-powered, energy-efficient, healthy five homes are done. Due to challenges too numerous to detail here (e.g., bureaucracy, disgruntled firms we let go, lack of comparable properties in the Lower 9th Ward, etc.), only two are occupied so far. But that will change very soon as the other homes go up for sale and families move in to enjoy not just their smart design, but their comfort, low energy bills, and healthy indoor air quality. The first homeowner's energy bills have never exceeded $30 a month (and that takes into account New Orleans’ sweltering summer!). Next, our Community Development and Climate Action Center will begin construction and be completed in 2012. And now, our fingers are crossed the Louisiana State Bond Commission will approve our 18-unit multi-family building in mid-September, providing the FIRST low-income rental apartment housing in New Orleans built since Hurricane Katrina. That will be the final piece of our sustainable village.

We have accomplished so much since embarking on this adventure and have remained true to our goal: helping the lives of those in need and building a catalytic project that would influence and inspire innumerous other efforts in the rebuilding process. We have helped build the capacity of the professional community in New Orleans, we have bumped up against and helped remove barriers for others rebuilding green, and we have helped make the green economy a reality with the creation of jobs and a demand for more green building products in the region.

Global Green is creating an iconic sustainable village that will be a catalyst for years, if not decades to come, thanks to the vision of those we worked with, starting with the inspiring work from the design community and the commitment of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association to rebuild a carbon-neutral neighborhood. And we are grateful for the support of the vision received from many, many others, including all the sponsors of the design competition, the lead funding partner The Home Depot Foundation, and all the in-kind donors we've been blessed with.

But today, I thank the design community, for giving so much in imagining the rebuilding of New Orleans. Each of you that submitted a design -- some whimsical, some fantastical -- is truly a hero who responded to one of our nation's worst moments with true valor.