Can This Home Be Greened? Rebuilding After Katrina

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Philip Gould
Grace's shotgun-style house in mid-city New Orleans had to be gutted after it was flooded and developed mold. It's now been raised four feet above ground and awaits a green overhaul.

Six months before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Grace Wilson bought her first home–a newly refurbished, raised shotgun-style house (a long, narrow home with doors on each end). The weekend before the hurricane, her mother and grandmother came to help put finishing touches on the décor. Two days later, the three headed north to flee the massive storm. Hurricane floods left 5 feet of water in Grace’s mid-city neighborhood; for two weeks, her home sat in 18 inches of water.

Afterward, Grace donned a hazmat (hazardous materials) suit and started to gut her house. A demolition crew removed interior finishes 3 feet above the water line, tore wet insulation out of exterior walls and left doors and windows open so the structure could dry. Later, all the wood surfaces were sprayed with borates to remediate the mold.

Two years after the hurricane, Grace is still waiting to renovate because she hasn’t yet received the $70,000 in federal aid money she’s approved for by The Road Home, Louisiana’s housing recovery program. While she waits, she hasn’t been idle. As an employee of New Orleans Tourism and Marketing, she’s helping revive the city’s tourist trade. “Now it’s time to bring life back to my house,” she says. “I have the luxury of time. I’m really passionate about all things ‘eco,’ and I want to rebuild right. The bigger picture and long-term sustainability are more on my mind than speed.”

Grace’s 840-square-foot house sits in a 19th-century neighborhood with its own corner grocery store and restaurant. The home was originally built from cypress boards taken from dismantled barges that had shipped goods down the Mississippi River.

“When the building people first saw the damage, they told me, ‘Oh, dahlin’, just tear it down,'” Grace says. “But everyone in my neighborhood is so resilient, I just had to preserve this place.”

Working with Micah Kibodeaux and Jeremy Love of eco-restoration company Love Construction, Grace looks forward to the simple things–having floors, walls, running water and energy-efficient appliances. “Whenever I start to worry about all there is to do, I just put on my smiley face,” she says. “I know it will all happen, and it’s going to happen green.”

1. Find a Floor

Problem: The demolition crew removed the floor because it warped badly in the flood. Grace, like most home-
owners in New Orleans, had to gut her home quickly to halt mold growth and because the federal government collected demolition materials for only a limited time. If Grace’s wet floorboards had been weighted as they dried, they might have flattened again, but in the hurricane’s aftermath there were few work crews with flood-recovery expertise, and homeowners managed as best they could.

Solution: Find local, salvaged, longleaf red pine for the flooring–ideally from structures still being demolished in the city. Then triple-sand the salvaged boards in the direction of the grain to create a beautiful floor that doesn’t require stain.
Kibodeaux should use a water-based sealer on the floor to allow the wood to breathe. In a hot, humid climate, a non-permeable “gym floor” finish can cause rot and mold.

Cost: Salvaged pine flooring: $2 to $3 per square foot, plus approximately $5,000 for installation.

2. Replace the Siding

Problem: The hurricane winds removed some of the house’s vinyl siding, exposing a thin, rigid insulation board that’s now brittle from sun exposure.

Solution: Remove all vinyl and insulation. Place an air barrier over the vertical boards, making sure to seal all joints, then cover the air barrier with salvaged, horizontal, cypress lap siding. Plenty of salvage materials still exist in New Orleans; longleaf red pine flooring, old bricks and cypress siding and beams are common.

Cost: Air barrier: 25 cents per square foot. Salvaged cypress siding: 50 to 75 cents per square foot. Installation costs for barrier and siding: $2,550.

3. Add New Insulation

Problem: In some places, builders in an earlier renovation placed studs sideways on the interior side of the vertical bargeboards, creating a smaller-than-usual 1.5-inch cavity for insulation. They probably did this because the doors were close to that wall and there wasn’t room for a full stud.

Solution: Provide a full insulation cavity by turning the studs. Then seal all wall- and attic-space penetrations with foam sealant and fill the wall cavity with blown-in cellulose insulation treated with fire-retardant borates. Cellulose is made from recycled newspaper, and the low-toxicity borates also combat mold, termites and roaches–major problems in this climate.

To finish the walls, use drywall without a paper covering because damp paper is food for mold. Then finish with a water-based paint containing no or few volatile organic compounds (VOCs), harmful chemicals that outgas into the air.

Cost: Cellulose insulation blown into walls: 75 cents per square foot. Paper-free drywall: 65 cents per square foot.

4. Cool the Attic

Problem: There’s significant heat gain through the heavy, asbestos-shingle roof, which weathered the storm well.

Solution: Although modern building trends tend toward placing foam insulation directly under the roof deck, in this case it would be better to locate the ductwork in the building envelope’s conditioned side, insulating the attic’s floor. Then Kibodeaux can ventilate the attic and install a radiant barrier under the roof.

A perforated radiant barrier is well-suited to the New Orleans climate because it doesn’t trap humidity, resulting in mold growth. (For more about attics, see “Rx for Southern Coastal Homes,” on page 35.

Cost: Radiant barrier: $200, plus $1 per square foot for installation.