December, 2007
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

NEW ORLEANS – Housing Laboratory of America


For generations, the citizens of New Orleans have survived, even thrived, in the face of death and destruction. From pirates, yellow fever, war and reconstruction to hurricanes and now massive flooding, those who have lived here have believed in renewal and celebration. The latest renewal brings with it a different kind of flood: one of new home-building technologies envisioned as making affordable, wind- and water-resistant housing available to residents.  

This is important because, according to the Global Green USA Web site, “Dire climate-change predictions rendered stark and visual reality through widespread destruction and suffering in what arguably is the first major American city devastated by climate change.”

Katrina was an average Category 3 hurricane that caused minimal wind damage as it passed just east of our city. After the hurricane, the storm surge would breech and overtop the federally designed and constructed levees, ruining two-thirds of the physical city and taking the lives of over 1,000 citizens.

Today, after all the finger pointing, then two years of planning, the City of New Orleans is poised for a great recovery. Foremost in all the plans for economic recovery and development are plans for housing. New Orleans is indeed the housing laboratory of America as it rebuilds. Home inspectors will have an opportunity to see what is being done in this laboratory when they attend InspectionWorld in January.  

A time for new designs and technologies

Because much of New Orleans housing stock was so old, and the newer post-World War II housing on slab foundations was so low, the cost of repairing all that had been destroyed would have exceeded its value. These homes are now starting to be replaced using new design and building technologies.

The Katrina Cottage

Insurance settlements and other awards often are not enough to start rebuilding at today’s construction costs. In response, the Katrina Cottage is now emerging as a well-built, code-compliant house. Plans for the smallest of the cottages, a home of about 600 square feet, include provisions for additions that can easily double its size at a later date.

The concept of a family of designs for small-scale, quality-built houses worthy of storm zones came from the New Urban Guild Foundation, as part of rebuilding efforts in Mississippi. Plans for the entire family of the Foundation’s designs are available on the Katrina Cottage Web site. In October 2007, the Louisiana board approved construction of 75 of the modular units at Jackson Barracks, Baton Rouge.

Photo: The 308 square foot modular Katrina Cottage.
Photo by Cusato Cottages.

A more immediate solution for a full-sized home is a modular factory home. These homes are built to not only withstand hurricane winds, but also the lengthy road trip from factory to home site. Like standard wood-frame homes, the modulars are bolted and strapped down to their new masonry pier foundations with floor levels at or above the FEMA base flood elevation. After delivery, foundation and utility hookup costs, they appear to be priced at or below new wood frame construction.

Photo: Another Katrina Cottage, a 544 square foot two bedroom, permanent house.  Photo by Cusato Cottages.

Stick-built better than ever

New wood-frame homes now are better than ever with roofs, walls and foundation tie-down metal connectors and straps all built to current code. Additional new home enhancements include solar-barrier roof sheathing Icynene®, an environmentally friendly, spray-in-place soft foam insulation and air barrier system; cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) water-supply piping, a material which doesn’t corrode or develop pinhole leaks and is chlorine- and scale-resistant; and on-demand gas water heaters.

Photo: Unlike conventional insulation products that allow air to move in and out of the home, Icynene® foam insulation is applied as a liquid and softly expands to 100 times its initial volume, sealing all gaps and crevices that compromise airtightness. Photo courtesy of Icynene®.

Most existing homes that flooded have been gutted to the wall studs, cleaned, treated with an anti-microbial product and often are being rebuilt by younger families, many of whom are first-time homebuyers. Soon, there will be fewer homes with amateur wiring, as all flooded homes are being rewired. Often, tile floors are installed because they will better withstand flooding if it occurs again before the Corps of Engineers’ 100-year-flood plan is completed in 2011.

New Orleans will soon be more energy efficient as older homes are rebuilt using low-E glass windows, AC systems with 13 S.E.E.R. or greater ratings, R-30 attic insulation and Energy Star appliances.

New to New Orleans: Insulated Concrete Form construction

Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs) provide a stronger and more energy-efficient building envelope than homes built with other types of wall structures and foundations. The ICF wall structures have been found to have greater axial load resistance in high winds such as those that occur along the Gulf Coast during hurricanes, provided steel reinforcement is installed in the forms during construction. In addition, there are no air spaces in the walls, which are rated R-22, to allow for air infiltration during New Orleans’ typical temperature and humidity swings. Manufacturers claim ICF construction is faster and easier than wood or steel frame, thus more cost-efficient. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how often this type of construction is used in New Orleans, where there are craftsmen and preservationists.

Photo: Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs). Photo courtesy of Reward Wall Systems.

High-profile projects abound

Habitat for Humanity, a faith-based homebuilder, is busy in New Orleans’ upper 9th Ward neighborhood, creating a new concept, “The Musicians Village.” It is often said that in New Orleans, music has always bubbled up from the streets. From colonial military bands to jazz and brass bands, music and musicians have always had a special place in the community. Local musicians were among those who lost everything when the levees broke. Bradford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr., both world-famous musicians who call the city their first home, recognized this and have spearheaded a village with Habitat on an eight-acre site, where 40 of 80 planned homes have been built by volunteers from all over the world. Construction began in March 2006 and the first 10 homeowners moved into their new homes in August 2006. Unique to these volunteer-assembled homes is that partition walls have been assembled around the country and trucked to New Orleans in containers. In the center of the village, there will be a 150-seat performance and music learning facility.

Musicians’ Village is one of the stops on the January 16 optional tour available to InspectionWorld attendees. Make it Right Foundation, together with Brad Pitt, through the Jolie-Pitt Foundation’s contribution of $5 million dollars, will build 150 new sustainable, yet affordable, homes in the city’s devastated lower 9th Ward neighborhood. The foundation has assembled a collaborative team of international architects to design high-quality homes that embrace green building principles with south-facing solar panel roofs. The first 20 pilot homes are scheduled to be under construction by January 2008 and completed by summer.

In the historic Holy Cross neighborhood, which is just south of the lower 9th Ward, the Home Depot Foundation is the lead supporter for the Holy Cross Project, which will be the first sustainable, low-income community in New Orleans. The first home soon will be completed and is expected to exceed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System’s™ Platinum Certification.

Four additional homes will follow, together with an 18-unit apartment complex and community center.

In downtown New Orleans, Global Green has operated a green building resource center since August 2006. Technical design information and seminars are offered to architects, builders and the public.

Depending on who you ask about rebuilding New Orleans, the glass is either half full or half empty at this time. Leadership has been lacking at all levels of government … until now. The New Orleans required plan for recovery has been accepted at the federal level, and funds appropriated by Congress over 18 months ago will soon flow. The City of New Orleans will build a model recovery village in City Park by year’s end that will demonstrate alternative building types to the public.

In October of 2007, City Hall unveiled plans for a new “Green Building Program” that will launch in spring 2008. It will include new construction standards, develop in stages and will involve the appointment of a chief energy officer. Perhaps it will be French Quarter resident Brad Pitt.

Home inspectors who want to see the materials and techniques being used in this renewal while attending InspectionWorld can rent a car to drive around the new “Housing Laboratory of America” … New Orleans!


The Katrina Cottage:
Read the inspirational story of how participants in the Mississippi Renewal Forum responded to the perceived need for a dignified alternative to the FEMA trailer. From one simple design, the idea grew and now a variety of safe and affordable homes are available. Use the links on this site to learn about the designers and manufacturers who provide plans, kits, modular construction and/or stick-built construction of Katrina Cottages.

Insulating Concrete Form Association (North America) – in depth information about the wind resistance is available at

ICF Info by the Portland Cement Association at

PATH Tech Inventory: Insulating Concrete Forms, on - Online Forum on ICF Construction,

ICF Builder Magazine - Online how-to articles for ICF contractors and do-it-yourselfers,

Habitat for Humanity's Musician's Village -

Make it Right Nola -

Global Green -,