Special House No. 9
Prefab the Right Way: KieranTimberlake tackles housing for the NOLA Lower Ninth Ward region with sleek sustainable strategies and safety as a top priority.
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Two years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged over 4,000 homes in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood was still devastated, with much of the community scattered across the country. Actor Brad Pitt started the Make It Right (MIR) Foundation in 2007 with the intention of creating 150 homes for families who lost everything in the tragedy. He enlisted the help of 13 architects to design affordable and storm-resistant houses to reach this goal. KieranTimberlake’s LEED Platinum-certified Special No. 9 House on 1744 Tennessee Street was one of the first homes completed, with health, efficiency, and safety as top priorities.
Though this home was constructed onsite, the design is poised for mass production, anticipating a shift to offsite fabrication. The core design allows the homeowners to play a large role in the process, with options for the layout, materials, systems, and aesthetics. “The overarching principle of the MIR homes was to have the owners involved in choosing the elements of design that they wanted,” says James Timberlake, FAIA, principal at KieranTimberlake.
Property owner Melba Leggett was not convinced the first time she heard a neighbor talking about the MIR housing. Despite her concerns, she met with representatives, committed to the project, and worked out a personal financing plan. “The next thing I know, we were coming home,” says Leggett, who moved into Special House No. 9 with her husband in January of 2009.
“The most important thing is for these people to get back into a house.” Timberlake says. “Arguably the most sustainable act of all is repairing a neighborhood and restoring a community.” From the beginning, green design was a crucial strategy to overcoming the challenge of the humid climate while keeping homes affordable.“We worked with MIR to establish the sustainable parameters that the architects had to work within, and we pushed it harder on this particular house,” Timberlake says.
Operable transoms, large windows along the south, east, and west facades, ceiling-mounted fans, and high ceilings all enhance natural ventilation, while photovoltaic panels provide over one-fourth of the total energy needs and a geothermal HVAC system alleviates heating and cooling loads. Outdoor decks on the front, back, and roof of the house provide access to outdoor spaces.
In terms of water efficiency, cisterns under the house capture rainwater for irrigation on the property. Although it’s not yet legal in the region, the home anticipates future plumbing code revisions to allow the use of rainwater for flushing. All additional runoff is absorbed onsite through permeable surfacing; in case of excessive precipitation, the runoff is directed to a bio-filtration wetland prior to entering the sewer system.
Timberlake admits that the cost of this prototype exceeded the $150,000-per-house budget, but anticipates expenses will drop with each successful completion. Every house is a learning process. It’s been a collaboration with the MIR Foundation and the other firms involved to keep costs down, says Timberlake. One aspect that the team hopes to improve with future prototypes is the trellis screen, which is designed for vines to infiltrate the cutouts. The team recognizes the value of the natural “green screen” as a passive solar collector, natural shade, and privacy provider, but has not yet succeeded in growing the vines around the trellis.
Lisa Heschong, a member of the COTE jury that awarded Special House No. 9 Top Ten honors said, “It’s an example of why architects should be involved in these challenging socio-economic locations.”