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Rebuilding for resilience: Q&A with Make It Right's Tom Darden

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USGBC's new free report, LEED in Motion: Residential, highlights the numbers, knowledge and resources you need to keep pace with the rapidly growing green residential market. 

Download the full report for more interviews and project highlights from best and brightest minds in the industry. 

Make it Right believes everyone has the right to live in a high-quality, healthy home that enhances the natural environment. Tom Darden leads efforts to rebuild safe, sustainable homes in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward—and beyond. 

Q. What led you to the field of green buildings and specifically, green homes? 

A. I was building homes in North Carolina when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and devastated communities like the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans. Like so many people from all over the country and around the world, I wanted to do whatever I could to help out. So, with some friends, I offered to do a feasibility analysis on some ideas Brad Pitt had for rebuilding. I met Brad through Bill McDonough, an architect and co-author of the book Cradle to Cradle, which Brad had read. Brad wanted to build the greenest houses in the world and so he asked amazing architects like Bill, Frank Gehry, David Adjaye and others to donate their time to help families who lost everything in the storm to build back better and more sustainably. I thought I would volunteer for a few weeks and now I’ve been working with Make It Right for over seven years! 

Q. What has enabled you and Make It Right to be so successful in making green, LEED Platinum homes affordable for everyone? What advice do you have for those looking to do the same? 

A. When we started Make It Right to help families in need, our goal was to build the best homes possible and to figure out how to make them affordable. In other words, we set the bar high and challenged ourselves and our partners to find ways to achieve the goal of affordability while refusing to compromise on quality. That approach led to lots of little innovations and strategies; we’ve posted many of these on our website to share lessons learned with anyone interested in affordable green homes. Generally, I would encourage others not to ask, “How much will it cost me to build green?” Instead, figure out how green you want to be and then get creative about how to get there affordably. 

Q. Why is it important to rebuild New Orleans with sustainability in mind? 

A. When we started the design process, we learned a lot by looking at traditional New Orleans designs that were inherently sustainable. Very old homes in New Orleans that have survived hurricane after hurricane were elevated when they were first built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Sustainability is not a new idea—people used to think about designing for the climate where they were building. But unfortunately, too often in affordable housing, low cost trumped safety and durability. We wanted to get back to the approach of assessing and understanding the risks in any particular location, and then designing and building homes that mitigate that risk to the greatest extent possible. In any environment where there’s an opportunity to rebuild, whether it’s turning an abandoned building into a community asset like we’ve done in Kansas City, or working in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, the goal is to build better and more sustainably. 

Q. What’s been the most exciting or impactful green home project that you’ve worked on? 

A. We’ve built over 200 LEED Platinum units ourselves and helped others with many more, so that’s a tough question! One of my favorite recent projects was a design competition, in collaboration with AIA, Clinton Global Initiative and other non-profits. The goal was to design and build affordable, sustainable housing templates for communities rebounding from disasters—like Joplin, New York/New Jersey and New Orleans. Make It Right provided the base design guidelines for the competition. The first home is under construction now in Rockaway, Queens. I like this collaboration because it builds on what we’ve learned over the years instead of reinventing the wheel. I think it’s critical that we continue to share what we’ve learned with the industry—mistakes as well as successes—so that collectively, we can make safe, healthy, sustainable homes affordable and available for everyone. 

Q. How do you envision the future of the green homes movement? What’s in the cards and how will we get there? 

A. My hope would be that those of us working to make green homes and buildings ubiquitous work ourselves out of a job. In other words, every home needs be a green home. To me, that means a home that operates in harmony with people and the environment—providing beautiful shelter that is durable, safe, made of Cradle to Cradle materials, produces clean water, generates more energy than it consumes and contributes positively to the health and well-being of its occupants. At Make It Right, that’s our goal. 

To get there, we need tools like LEED that evolve and continually improve. We can’t sit back and be satisfied just because we achieved LEED Platinum. We need to continue to push ourselves to the next level.

Download LEED in Motion: Residential to read more. 

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    Jennifer Easton made 10 contributions in the last 6 months

Jennifer Easton

Marketing & Communications Project Manager U.S. Green Building Council

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