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Executing Brad Pitt's Vision

July 2011

Interview by Jane Kolleeny

Tom Darden is the Executive Director of the Make It Right (MIR) Foundation, founded by actor Brad Pitt in 2007 to build 150 affordable, green, high-design homes in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Darden oversees a staff of 33, has raised over $27 million, and managed the design process for the 75 completed homes.

Originally from Raleigh, N.C., Tom Darden worked in sustainable real estate development before taking the MIR job in 2007.
Photo © Neal Moore
Originally from Raleigh, N.C., Tom Darden worked in sustainable real estate development before taking the MIR job in 2007.
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GreenSource: How did you get involved with Make It Right (MIR)?

Tom Darden: My background is in sustainable real estate development. I have a company back in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I’m from. We buy small, polluted properties and develop them. After Katrina we wanted to do something to help out. I heard about Make It Right and Brad Pitt’s idea for rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward sustainably through William McDonough, who’s a friend of my father’s. MIR needed someone to do research on the concept, which is my favorite part of a development project, the very early stages. So I volunteered to go down to New Orleans and do a feasibility study, to figure out how to get started. That turned into a report, which turned into a presentation to Pitt and others. Basically they said, “Can you do this? It looks like a good plan but can you actually do this?” I thought I’d go down for a few months to get it off the ground and that rolled into a full-time job. That was about four years ago. One thing not a lot of people know is that we actually worked on developing the concept very closely with the community for a year before we announced it publically in December 2007.

GS: How did MIR select such esteemed architects for the houses?

TD: Passionate about architecture, Pitt had read McDonough's book Cradle to Cradle and was inspired by that philosophy. Pitt had worked with a firm called Graft to develop the concept for MIR, so he, Graft, McDonough, and some local architects got together and suggested firms, all with excellent design portfolios, who do green work, are interested in redeveloping disaster sites, and have experience in single-family residential design, though there weren't strict background requirements per se. Design was a major consideration; Pitt was trying to get the best of the best. We invited firms to participate pro bono, not realizing they would all say yes.

GS: How did the local community respond?

TD: It was two years after Hurricane Katrina when Pitt formed the idea, so a lot of post-disaster planning had already been done. The community had by then become well versed in green buildings. They knew what that was and they knew they wanted it. That knowledge was born out of a couple of years of working with firms like BNIM and others like a local community activist named Pam Dashiell about how to recover the community sustainably. Championing building sustainably, Dashiell set up a local grassroots nonprofit we continue to work with called the Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development. In addition, Pitt had worked with Global Green, which was in many ways an inspiration for MIR. Just after the storm, Global Green hosted a competition that Pitt sponsored and judged, which resulted in five single-family houses in Holy Cross, an area of the lower Ninth Ward. The community had gone through that experience as had Pitt, so together they wanted to do more, they wanted to do 1,000 homes, but they decided early on to focus on 150, 75 of which are built.

GS: What is your business model?

TD: The city lost lots of records during the storm and 1,600 people perished in that part of the neighborhood, and as a result there have been lots of issues with property titles and paperwork. We’ll either build on a lot a family used to live on or we’ll acquire a property from an existing owner and offer it to a new family. We try to restrict ourselves to a certain area to create density. I call this incremental planning and infill development; instead of building beside abandoned structures you’re building beside empty lots with nothing left but a slab. For the Lower Ninth Ward, the houses are in a relatively dense area, but they are scattered around since we control only about a third of the properties in this area. With every house that we build it begins to look more like a neighborhood.

GS: Do families choose their houses?

TD: Yes, the families select from a catalogue of prototypes. Then they participate in a charrette with the architects, some of whom have come from all over the world. There are a decent amount of choices for families. They choose the design, which means they decide which houses go beside the others, which colors go where, there is no master developer deciding for them. They choose the stilt level too—five or eight feet above the flood zones, which if high enough can create a shaded outdoor area under the house. In summer the difference in temperature between shaded and sunny areas can be as high as 20 degrees so that becomes an important space.

GS: How did you get the money together?

TD: When Katrina happened lots of money flowed in, but we missed the initial post-Katrina push since we formed MIR in 2007, two years after the storm. That’s why that year Pitt decided to build life-sized, symbolic houses where the real ones would eventually be built. Iconic and Christo-like, hot pink fabric was wrapped around scaffolding on the sites where real houses would go. As we raised money, a house would be righted on its lot. Early on we had a couple of big donations—for example American Idol Gives Back raised $10 million.

The average cost of a house is $130 to 150 a square foot. We sell the house for market rate back to the owners who’ve been given money for their losses and can qualify for grants. MIR asks the homeowners to contribute whatever they can afford towards a mortgage. The gap between the selling price and what the owner can afford becomes a soft 2nd mortgage that MIR holds. Habitat for Humanity and most affordable housing programs use a similar model, since families often can’t fully afford the asking price of the house.

Lately we’re doing more and more grant applications for foundation money. Out of the gate, there’s a lot of high net worth donations but since then we’ve transitioned to more traditional models, very similar to other affordable housing developers. We got money allocated from HUD two years ago, which still hasn’t come in but I think we’ll be getting it soon. We’re tapping more traditional sources, like tax credit financing. We’re putting on fundraising events, everything that most nonprofits do. Working with Brad Pitt has had huge benefits. His star power brings big money, but the down side is everyone assumes we have lots of money, which we don’t.

GS: What is your strategy with regard to sustainability?

TD: When we started we knew we wanted to get as close as we could to McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle benchmark, but it wasn’t always possible since the materials don’t always exist. One of the things we have done is work with local vendors and the supply chain to create materials and order enough to make it financial attractive for them. We won’t use a material unless we can get it stocked in the local store; eventually that lowers the cost. We also wanted third-party validation so we agreed to focus on LEED, since that’s what most people recognize. Back then, I got a call from USGBC about all the LEED Platinum applications coming from New Orleans. At that point we realized we were ahead of the pack in terms of green building. I think because of Pitt’s convening power and helping a community in need, all of a sudden we got a lot of smart people thinking about a problem and that allowed us to be innovative. In terms of statistics, all 75 houses of our completed houses are expected to receive LEED Platinum. USGBC was comfortable enough to issue that statement in a press release, that ours is the largest community of LEED Platinum houses in one place. For a while we were competing with a Habitat chapter for that title but we pulled ahead of them.

We take a laboratory approach with design and tap experts to help us experiment and we analyze the performance. Our refusal to compromise on cost compels us to innovate. For example, we’ve designed a wall that’s five times stronger than code and uses less lumber. We created a street of pervious concrete, training over 20 local contractors in installing it. It costs us up front but not on the back end, and there are huge reductions in cost for labor once people are trained. We created a non-steel rebar used with pervious concrete for SIP panels. We have a patent pending on that.

GS: What’s in the future?

TD: Brad wants to change the building industry. We are trying to make green buildings as high quality and low cost as possible, with potential to take the model outside New Orleans. We’ve got a flagship project in Newark, New Jersey. Using HUD grants, we are helping another nonprofit called Help USA, who has an affordable housing project that has built tens of thousands of units. We are helping them make it greener, shooting for LEED Platinum without any additional costs. We are looking at another project in a major metro area, and beginning to think about examining the need for affordable green housing throughout the country. It shouldn’t take a hurricane to build this way.


This article appeared in the July 2011 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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