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Best Green Houses:

Community Service

A motel in New Orleans is transformed into triple-bottom-line housing.

By David Sokol
March 2013
Photo © Bethanie Dardant

The centerpiece of this month’s Public Interest Design Week is the Structures for Inclusion Conference that begins March 20 at the University of Minnesota College of Design. And the centerpiece of that event is the multi-part presentation of projects that won 2013 Social/Economic/Environmental Design (SEED) Awards. An undertaking of Raleigh-based Design Corps, the awards program is part of a larger initiative that makes the case for defining sustainable design beyond energy-performance measures: The building that engages its local community more deeply is also more likely to be admired, maintained, and adapted by it.

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One project being feted in Minneapolis is The Rosa F. Keller Building, pictured here. The first mixed-income housing project in New Orleans, the Keller project gives new life to a building type in need of reinvention and to the people occupying it.

Approximately 2,500 residents of New Orleans are chronically homeless, and homelessness increased 70 percent locally after Hurricane Katrina. The 2003 introduction—by a director of New Orleans’ Downtown Development District—between UNITY of Greater New Orleans and Community Solutions could not have been more fortuitous. The New York–based nonprofit is the national offshoot of Common Ground, a visionary organization that keeps New York’s most vulnerable populations off the streets through innovative public and private funding mechanisms, joint collaborations, and the incorporation of social services into housing properties. Both were founded by the incomparable Rosanne Haggerty.

The Rosa F. Keller Building shows how the Community Solutions approach applies outside of the Big Apple. Its business model called for half of the 60-unit building to provide permanent housing for people with incomes at or below 50 percent of the area median income. The other 30 units are occupied by disabled “Shelter Plus Care” residents, who benefit from the services of two on-site case managers (though every Keller employee is trained to identify tenant need and to suggest assistance). Case managers’ workspace, as well as offices for the building director, property managers, maintenance workers, and front desk staff, are part of the facility alongside a gym, computer room, multipurpose room, rehearsal space, and courtyard garden.

Co-developer HRI Properties designed the project through its arm HCI Architecture; today it manages the building. Co-developer and owner UNITY staffs The Rosa F. Keller Building with social services. 

UNITY, through its Abandoned Buildings Team, also identified the site for The Rosa F. Keller Building: a dilapidated motor-court hotel in the Tulane/Gravier Mid-City neighborhood that was last occupied in 2002. So, besides helping its neediest tenants recover themselves from the margins of society, The Rosa F. Keller Building earns community goodwill by salvaging a neglected part of its urban fabric.

The two strategies enhance one another. The 1950s-era motel’s courtyard is a vital component of the Keller building’s success. “We really learned its importance after completion,” explains Jeanne Reaux-Connor, UNITY’s director of housing development. “Supportive-housing tenants are literally coming off the streets, and the most vulnerable tenants have a resistance to physical enclosure. The courtyard gives them the feeling of remaining outside.”

Michael Albracht, who was in charge of design and interiors for HCI, explains that the courtyard, which is now colonnaded, has a more finely grained and vernacular expression as a deliberate counterpoint to the vehicular scale of the Keller building’s street-facing elevations. Moreover, by threading circulation through this well conceived courtyard, the design team could also avoid the cost and environmental footprint of a double-loaded, air-conditioned corridor. The colonnade provides some shading.

“There are a host of reasons to build as green as possible, ranging from the efficiency of the building to the health of the community,” concurs Nadine Maleh, director of Community Solutions’ Creating Homes service. Green features span well beyond adaptive reuse, as the project abides the Enterprise Green Communities Criteria Checklist. They include daylighting, Energy Star lighting and appliances and equally efficient mechanical systems, and no- and low-VOC finishes such as natural linoleum flooring in kitchens.

Yet the greenest aspect of The Rosa F. Keller Building is its expansive approach to sustainability. The project was almost fully occupied soon after opening and, as a model for permanent supportive housing in the city, it has earned local imprimatur from groups like Mid-City Neighborhood Organization and Broad Community Connections, City Councilmember Stacy Head, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which, through the Southeast Louisiana Veterans Health Care System, is constructing a new hospital across the street. Albracht foresees New Orleans integrating even more tightly with the Keller building, as people from adjacent development patronize its 2,400-square-foot retail space and case managers from both UNITY and the VA engage one another in dialogue. Although the Keller building may pale in comparison to the scale of its neighbor, even greater impacts are to come, as Community Solutions and UNITY are partnering on four other sites in New Orleans currently.

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