The Make It Right foundation is doing some amazing things in post-Katrina New Orleans. Although Brad Pitt is the celebrity face of the organization, Tom Darden is the man who makes everything happen. As the organization’s executive director, Darden is essentially a nonprofit developer in the Lower Ninth Ward—he’s finding the families, securing the financing, and coordinating the construction for 150 homes. Homes by the likes of Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne.
Darden carved time out of his busy schedule to serve as gb&d’s Guest Editor for our Mar/Apr 2012 issue. We ended up talking about everything from his accidental ascent to executive director of Make It Right to the daily challenges of acting as a de facto nonprofit developer. He also shared with us an innovative (and affordable!) prefab, a new book by William McDonough (whom he’s lucky enough to call a family friend), and his effort to build the nation’s largest concentration of LEED Platinum homes. Read the conversation and see his picks below.
Green Building & Design: Tom, you were the first volunteer for Make It Right, but what made you decide to volunteer for this purpose as opposed to other Hurricane Katrina relief programs?
Tom Darden: That’s a bit of a long story. I heard about Brad Pitt’s idea for helping rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward sustainably from William McDonough; Bill’s a family friend of ours. He received a call from Brad and the architecture firm GRAFT, and they were brainstorming how they could help. My real-estate partner, at the time, and I were looking for a way to do some volunteer work after the storm but weren’t really sure how to get plugged in. So I heard about this concept, and we volunteered to do some research on this idea.
gb&d: Before Make It Right, you’d worked in sustainable development. Was that a factor in becoming its executive director?
TD: When I became executive director, it was more that I was the guy who was standing there. After the volunteer work that I did, we put together a plan for how to go about building these houses. We worked really closely with the community to develop a concept, and then we set up the 501(c)3. Once we rolled out the effort publicly, we had volunteer architects contribute the designs. My role as a volunteer sort of shifted, and I became the first employee, I guess you could say, of this new foundation.
gb&d: You have some of the biggest names in architecture designing for Make It Right. How did you get them on board?
TD: Brad had the idea of asking the world’s best architects to help think about this problem: How do you rebuild a community that was completely devastated in a way that’s going to be sustainable for the long-term? The ultimate goal is to design around the needs of these families, and so, who better to ask for their input than some of the world’s most creative minds in architecture? Originally, we wanted nine firms because we just seemed to keep coming across this idea of nine. We were working in the Lower Ninth Ward, we had nine community partners, so we thought, “Why don’t we ask nine architecture firms?” We asked 13, just because we figured some would be busy, and we asked them to donate their time and told them that we couldn’t pay them. And all 13 of them said yes. I remember having a conversation with Brad where I was saying, “Okay, this is interesting; we have 13 instead of nine. How are we going to figure out who to cut?” And he just said, “Nah, we’re just going to go with 13.”
gb&d: You’ve said that Brad Pitt is a tough boss, how has his vision affected the way you run Make It Right?
TD: I would say that he is the visionary, so I see my job in a lot of ways as executing his vision, and the vision that was developed by the community. So when I’ve said that he’s a tough boss, I mean that he has very high expectations.
gb&d: What are his expectations?
TD: Nothing short of close to perfectly executed performance. He expects the best out of the people that he works with, and I think that that spills over into how we go about our day here at Make It Right.
gb&d: Make It Right is not only the largest cluster of LEED Platinum homes in the country, but also a cluster of high-design homes. How will that impact the community?
TD: It wasn’t necessarily our goal to revolutionize architecture across New Orleans or in the Lower Ninth Ward. It was just to build the best houses for these families, and what came out of it was very high design. This neighborhood was historically and culturally significant before Katrina but not architecturally significant. We were replacing slab-on grade, post-World War, ranch-style houses with something that was architecturally significant that the community can be proud of.
gb&d: What’s been the most unique challenge?
TD: My job is that of a nonprofit developer, so we’re not just a builder, we’re basically organizing the development, everything from assembling the property to working with these families. When I go to work every day, it’s probably significantly different than the day that I’ve had before. And every day something really bad happens, and then something really great happens. It’s a constant up-down, up-down; my job is the opposite of boring.gb&d: Do other developers ask for your help?
TD: All the time. Recently, we worked on a project in Newark, New Jersey, where we partnered with a nonprofit builder and developer, and we finished a 56-unit building for disabled veterans. So our role was to take that from being a conventional building to a LEED Platinum building without adding any costs, which we did successfully. Now we’re looking at a similar project in Kansas City, Missouri. We wanted to prove that if you’re going to be building any new building or doing a rehab, then you can build to these high standards without adding any costs. If you can prove that, then there’s really no excuse for building any other way.
gb&d: How has the philosophy of ‘cradle-to-cradle’ inspired the organization?
TD: Cradle to Cradle really is inherent to everything that we do. So that’s the reason that Brad called Bill to begin with. Bill and his team worked with the other architects to help make sure that the cradle-to-cradle perspective was being brought to the design table. They making sure that we’re not just thinking about these houses as using less energy, but let’s aspire to be better than zero, let’s be positive, let’s create energy. We’re not going to be ‘energy efficient’ or ‘net-zero,’ because that means that if we didn’t exist, that would be better for everybody. We want to be positive. In some ways it’s a never-ending goal. We talk about the houses as cradle-to-cradle inspired because as of now, there’s no such thing as a home built in the United States to code that is a full cradle-to-cradle house. But whenever we’re using materials that we know aren’t optimal because we don’t have another alternative, at least we’ve flagged those materials and we’re constantly looking for a replacement.
gb&d: You’ve built or commissioned 87 homes to date, just more than halfway to your goal of 150. What happens after 150?
TD: Post-150… an exciting thing to think about. We recently completed a strategic plan to help guide that. We really just want to keep building in New Orleans, but that’s a funding question. We’re also focusing on making sure that the community in the Lower Ninth Ward is sustainable for the long-run in every sense of that word. When I say ‘sustainable,’ let me strike that, and say ‘vibrant.’ We want to make a community that’s not only full with beautiful, green houses but also that has access to community businesses. We’d love to do a community center or a visitor’s center. Recently, we redesigned the streetscapes in the area to use pervious concrete instead of traditional asphalt, and the city is putting it in as we speak. We want to make sure that the other needed community services are there, and there in a sustainable way.
gb&d: Is Make It Right involved in other community projects outside the Lower Ninth Ward?
TD: Make It Right Solar does work with other nonprofits around the city, and really the region, and we definitely are a part of a lot of education work with local universities. We try to be a part of the green building community here in New Orleans and beyond.
gb&d: What has this project taught you about design?
TD: It can have a transformative effect on people’s lives. It really can make an impact on the way people view the world and how they interact with their family and their home. It is a critical element for any builder to consider.
gb&d: What have you learned about New Orleans?
TD: Well, this place is like no other in the world, I will say that. It just exudes culture. I said that my job is never boring; well, this city is never boring. There is always something going on, and the people just love this place like no other residents of any city I have experienced. There is this deep, deep love of everything New Orleans. And it’s the food, it’s the music, it’s the culture, it’s this blend of different ethnicities and races and religions, and you end up getting this pot of gumbo that is unique to New Orleans.
gb&d: After seven years, would you consider yourself a New Orleanian?
TD: That’s a bit of a loaded question. Seven years probably isn’t long enough.