Below the Sill Plate: New Orleans East Struggles to Recover

New Orleans East
New Orleans East, August 2007. Clockwise from top left: Houses on New Hampshire Drive, Dwyer Road, Chef Menteur Hwy, Dwyer Road. [Photos by Alysha Jordan]

A full six months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was still like a city the morning after, as if the revelers had just gone home or the last fan departed the Superdome. Yet the detritus littering the streets was not the usual post-Mardi Gras bead-laced trash, but rather streetlights blinking as they lay on their sides and houses unmoored from their foundations. We drove for miles past the wreckage along avenues named with insouciance in the face of earlier troubles — Elysian Fields, Desire, Esplanade — then east across the Industrial Canal, another fault line in the present crisis, and on into a territory called New Orleans East. There, the cloudless sky set off the profiles of the tidy ranch houses the line the gently curving streets. Gradually, we discerned the signs of the flood and its aftermath — the broken windows and moldy sheetrock. The writing on the house walls and garage doors told stories in emotion-laden graffiti: We Will Be Back. See You Soon!!!! With a house on every block marked or under renovation, the people had placed a tactical hold on the neighborhood in the hope of saving it from demolition. During the four years that followed we became advocates, planners and architects for the anywhere suburbs of New Orleans East, in particular the neighborhood of Plum Orchard, and subsequently for portions of the Lower Ninth Ward. This is a story of our work from the ground up — of its rich range of consequences and, ultimately, of its limitations.

Plum Orchard

We began our involvement in post-Katrina New Orleans as participants in a U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant to aid citizens while also developing strategies to prepare the city for future disasters. Our local partners, Acorn (Association for the Community Organizations for Reform Now) and Acorn Housing, had strong constituencies in both New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward. After Katrina, New Orleans East had received less attention than the historic and central Lower Ninth, despite its equally dire circumstances and significant location. New Orleans East is an extensive zone located in low-lying, marshy land along Lake Pontchartrain. Not only is it large; it also exemplifies the vast, increasingly vulnerable coastal suburban settlements of America, and it underscores the true demographics of such suburbs, which, contrary to popular assumption, house not just middle class but also lower-income populations — albeit on flood-prone or otherwise marginal property. We framed our efforts as nothing less than a re-envisioning of the coastal suburb in the age of global warming, in ways beneficial to lower-income populations.

The political dimension of the design of New Orleans is nowhere more evident than in the suburban settlements of New Orleans East, in the perceived conflict between sustainable communities and sustainable landscapes. This latest battle of New Orleans pits those who consider the entire city as a single flood plain, threatened by longstanding social dysfunction (as well as by global warming), against those who would shrink the city to high ground to save it from flooding. A now-infamous plan of the early recovery effort placed dots across a city map to indicate potential areas of prophylactic depopulation and selective demolition in anticipation of future flooding; our site was included. The general assumption was that the residents of these areas, who had scattered during the crisis, would remain diasporic or move to other neighborhoods. Yet our site is no lower in elevation than other damaged suburban developments, including the whiter Jefferson Parish, west of the city, so that to empty it of its residents took on undertones of ethnic cleansing. While the “dots” have now been officially discredited, the policy persists de facto in the lack of investment in these districts and as word on the street.

This territorial conflict emerges in part from the facts of Katrina’s aftermath but also from habitual design thinking, which has long relied on extra-large infrastructure to control the environment, on the one hand, and on individual self-determination to structure the political process, on the other. The catalytic storm rendered this dialectical approach to planning ineffective. The call for the wholesale erasure of neighborhoods, which was presented as a defense of ecology, confronted the immobility of individuals, which was presented as an assertion of community. In our work with Plum Orchard we sought to overcome this standoff by accepting the existing suburban morphology of individual properties and then suggesting incremental adaptations to new environmental and social factors that could then develop the shape and impact of a master plan. Perhaps the clearest statement of our initial mindset was Project Backyard, a self-help brochure that we distributed to returning residents. It offered charts of climate-suitable plants, trees and ground cover, accompanied by descriptions of how gardens act as easy, cheap and cheerful ecological tools. It was a big hit in the neighborhood and at citywide rebuilding fairs. It explained that — according to the National Resource Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — the massing of many small plots of modified wetland can be an effective means of water management, perhaps even as good as a major marsh. Many, in our thinking, was an alternative to extra-large. While we do not propose this as the only scale of approach to the problems of suburban resettlement, it represents a larger intent — to undo the overdetermined relationship between an environmental problem and the social price to be paid.

In the four years that we worked in Plum Orchard, we developed strategies that scale up, in time and territory, from the backyard and the retrofitted house, to clustered settlements, to an aggregation of twelve blocks called the Model Block, which in turn connects to citywide infrastructures.

Proposed renovation of 4237 America Street, Plum Orchard. Click image to see original. [All images courtesy of Gans Studio, except as noted]


The scattered site development that occurred after Katrina reinforced the typical Plum Orchard pattern of blocks of houses (separated with 3-foot-wide side yards), and in the process reduced the possibility for alternative patterns. To act fast — faster than architects and planners usually work — we came up with brochures aimed at those in the midst of rebuilding. Some brochures listed available social resources and others described best building practices for flood-proof construction. Retrofitting the Rancher went beyond specifying waterproof materials; it visualized the environmental transformation of an entire neighborhood through methods implementable within an individual property, such as adding attic refuge spaces, solar roofs, cisterns, green walls and fences, and porches for shade and ventilation. As its moniker suggests, the brochure engaged modest ranch typologies and illustrated the proposed improvements using actual homes and addresses so that residents could imagine such transformations concretely and aspire to them — which they did.

Clustered Settlements: Repositioning in Place

To move back onto an empty block in New Orleans East is to make oneself vulnerable to crime in the short term and water in the long term. But there exist neighborhood strategies to cope with this vulnerability that predate Katrina, which derive from informal social covenants far more powerful than any textbook principles such as “eyes on the block.” These social covenants work because they are rooted in the neighborhood’s extended families (one family, for example, owns more than a dozen properties). These families have historically formed strategic links between socioeconomic and physical infrastructure, using real-estate ploys like house swapping among family members according to need, a tactic that readily accepts the environmental logic of abandoning a flood-prone house for the safety of nearby higher ground. Thus Plum Orchard has developed land-use patterns different from the usual suburban formulas in its mix of rental properties and double houses with single-family homeownership. Richer suburbs have resisted the introduction of exactly this economic mix, fearing that it would depress real-estate values. But our neighborhood has long understood that a flexible mix allows families to move up rather than out when the floods come, and thus to remain housed whether young or old, wage earning or unemployed. Today, in the absence of city investment, these networks and tactics are sustaining people physically and psychologically.

The destruction of the landscape created the need for a new kind of development covenant linked to the right to return safely. In its most succinct form, this covenant argues that no individual should reclaim a territory alone; that a neighborhood is the smallest sustainable unit socially, economically and physically; and that the smallest division of such a neighborhood is the housing cluster. We made this implicit community ideal explicit in our proposal for clustered settlements. To create a cluster requires the sustainable renovation of three or more contiguous houses. At best this entails rebuilding a swath at maximum density with a range of aspirational features, such as aggregated wetlands and off-the-grid services. For several years Acorn Housing adopted this principle by encouraging the reconstruction of contiguous sites on higher ground.

In New Orleans, every inch of elevation counts. No enclave is categorically flat, including Plum Orchard, where the highest ground is nine feet above the low point. The covenant’s seemingly small adjustments, which address where a family may rebuild within the neighborhood — repositioning in place — can have profound effects.

Zoning, infrastructure and housing of the proposed Model Block, the Goose. The red line marks 0-BFE, sea level.

True Boundaries: The Model Block, a Planning Unit of Proper Size

In formulating a settlement scale larger than the cluster, we sought a planning unit that could support the possibility of safe return through some degree of infrastructural autonomy, both social and physical. To determine its reach we identified standard community-based planning elements, including the ten-minute walk to public transportation, schools, and markets; the perimeters defined by family networks; natural drainage patterns in relation to existing sewer systems and pumps; routes of evacuation; and sites of refuge. From this analysis there emerged a test “model block of proper size”: specifically, a group of about twelve blocks in Plum Orchard within existing borders defined by three roads and a green space. The I-10 to the west is an elevated expressway and evacuation route to Baton Rouge; Chef Menteur Highway to the south, on high ground, is the old commercial artery that connects the east to downtown; Dwyer Road on the north provides major drainage infrastructure at the site’s lowest edge; and the Sisters of the Holy Name convent to the east has an extensive campus. Most important, residents identified the area within these boundaries as a natural precinct they called “the Goose,” for reasons nobody can recall.

As we were documenting the implicit organizational structure of the Goose, the larger planning processes of New Orleans were under way, and in flux. The Urban Land Institute Plan (2005) was replaced by Bring New Orleans Back (2006), which was in turn succeeded by the Lambert Plan (2006), itself succeeded by the Unified New Orleans Plan (2007). All of these proposals called for determining the city footprint on the basis of the strength of community self-assertion. The BNOB process, for example, required that 50 percent of the local population declare they would return in order for the community to stake a claim to its future — a percentage that Plum Orchard had not yet met. Silence was tantamount to elimination. To stimulate community organization in a bedroom suburb was, therefore, to secure its short-term survival, as well as to germinate new civic structures for long-term environmental planning. Perhaps our greatest accomplishment was to hold church-basement meetings and visioning sessions that helped create an educated and engaged citizenry capable of using the instruments of planning, even if the City Planning Commission lacked the authority to transform community power into policy. 1

Planning for the Model Block of the Goose began with the consideration of the site as one continuous field rather than as a street map. A foundational principle for building in New Orleans is the Base Flood Elevation, or BFE, the elevation of a 100-year flood. It affects all aspects of life — from house insurance to zoning to ecosystems to livelihoods. We therefore chose to describe the landscape sectionally, as a series of plans cut at different heights above sea level, in order to study how floodplains might suggest new combinations of environment and behavior. Historically, the cultural landscapes of New Orleans have been linked by water and elevation to indigenous building types: saltwater wetland to fishing cottage; brackish marsh to raised Creole cottage; fresh water to house with a raised center hall; upland to shotgun house. Beginning at two feet above the official BFE and descending northward to eight feet below, our site exemplifies the larger field of New Orleans, where myriad conditions coexist on a single hyper-differentiated floodplain.

Model Block Plan of the Goose. Click image to enlarge.

For instance, at BFE 0-0 — that is, sea level — the Model Block is a continuous planted landscape, punctuated by the piles, porches and stairs of raised houses, and it features water-management tools such as bioswales and seasonal ponds. At the site’s high southern edge, the plan cuts through an underground infrastructure of culverts and drywells. Using a numeric method to calculate runoff, our infrastructure team figured that this field can manage the five million gallons per hour dumped by a storm once every ten years.

At BFE 20-0, one can see the larger scale and greater density of the neighborhood, with a mix of clustered and traditionally sited houses in a multistory residential development. Along the high ground at the southern edge, the plan cuts through the lower level of a group of commercial buildings. The development contains and supports mixed demographics and can help pay for social amenities such as playgrounds. Also at this elevation there appears a hierarchy of pathways designed to provide both social and flood infrastructures. One pathway is the major connection of the enclave to the city and its primary evacuation route, Chef Menteur Highway; here we propose a rapid-transit bus system. The wide north-south streets running downhill from Chef Menteur are paved culverts that move water quickly to the bottom of the site; parallel to them run swales that also carry water. Narrower east-west side streets of gravel slow down the water and are selectively pedestrianized, planted and regraded. Their cul-de-sacs are captured as landscape or used as sites for collective off-the-grid services like solar panels, recycling stations and cisterns for potable water. These can serve the Model Block in case of emergency and in the ongoing absence of city infrastructure investment. One cul-de-sac extends past a school and neighborhood commercial center into a greenway and bike path that connects to other communities farther east.

Taken together the complete set of graded field conditions from BFE 0-0 to BFE 20-0, along with their attendant water-management resources, would ensure that the neighborhood could be pumped out rapidly during almost any flood, and also help the community learn to live with water.

Proposed rezoning of the Model Block overlaid on the pre-Katrina plan.

Project Realpolitik

At the conclusion of the grant in fall 2006, many of the strategies and tactics that we developed for water management and some of the specific desires of the neighborhood were incorporated into the official Lambert/Danzey Neighborhood Rebuilding Plan for District Nine. 2 But while that plan has been superseded, our thinking, by virtue of its resonance with the infrastructural ideas of so many other community-based efforts, seems to have infiltrated the mentality of ongoing city planning.

Acorn Housing then hired James Dart of the New York City firm DARCH and me as architects for a city-sponsored project slated to create as many as 400 prefabricated houses on adjudicated sites, some in New Orleans East but most in Lower Ninth. These properties were contested because of their low elevations and also because, pre-Katrina, they had been condemned as blighted. Their prognosis was uncertain. To rebuild meant to rethink localities that had been troubled for years. It required, in short, that we develop suitably raised and protected housing typologies while also looking below the sill plate at the social and economic ground on which these houses would stand.

In developing house types for Plum Orchard, we always envisioned producing them in a factory. New Orleans seemed the perfect venue for prefabrication, given the immediacy of need, the scale of demand, and the dearth of local labor. Yet the most common prefabricated house in America — the ranch — had been disproportionately vulnerable to water damage in suburban New Orleans East. In the postwar years, as residents of the Lower Ninth moved across the Industrial Canal in pursuit of the American dream, they had torn down their old, environmentally sensitive elevated cottages and replaced them with standard suburban-style houses. But the generic ranch is not well suited to the Delta. It requires an elaborate foundation because the ground is not solid enough for a standard slab to rest on (the slab sits instead on edge beams that are, in turn, supported on subsurface piles). In Plum Orchard much of this modified ranch housing had been built by federal housing programs, designed for poor residents and sited on low ground; much of this building stock was flooded out of existence after Katrina. These forensics point to the danger of prefabrication: the illusion of almost universal applicability, formally and socially. Thus far in the rebuilding of New Orleans assimilation to locale has often meant importing generic homes prefabricated in factories from Pennsylvania to Georgia and raising them to flood heights set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Our ambition as the architects for Acorn Housing, as in our proposal for the Model Block, was to consider this industrial object, the prefab, together with its lot and landscape as a single entity.

The realities of the adjudicated properties tested our ambitions. The first 150 sites were scattered throughout the Lower Ninth Ward — recapitulating the problems of planning we had found in post-storm New Orleans East. To remedy the isolation of the lots, Acorn attempted to acquire adjacent properties from neighbors willing to sell and reached out to others interested in rebuilding. We requested that they leave the lower sites fallow and begin building on higher ones that had also the benefit of proximity to Claiborne Avenue, a central city artery with commercial potential. These gross tactics aimed to preserve the opportunity to set aside property near the levee in the Lower Ninth for wetlands and to establish a framework of graded development with higher density on higher ground. The test was to see if planting wetland landscapes on an ad hoc, site-by-site basis could create a latent field that could be stitched together over time. But legal complications impeded even this basic planning strategy. The problems of clearing title and establishing Acorn’s ownership of the properties trumped the logic of base flood elevation. The first sites legally owned and marketed by Acorn were those with no claims on them, wherever they might be found — which was, not surprisingly, scattered about on low ground.

Adjucated Properties, Lower 9th Ward
Adjudicated Properties in the Acorn Housing Target Development Area, Lower Ninth Ward, June 2006. [Map by Kerry McLaughlin and Andrew Rumbach for Acorn]

To develop basic prototypes for our prefabs, we held focus groups with potential buyers, all with neighborhood connections. From these we developed five designs that responded to local family lifestyles. We dubbed our modified shotgun house the Best Shot, with a starter version called the First Shot. The Courtyard house brings the protected outdoor spaces of a New Orleans townhouse to the suburban lot. The Mother-in-Law house has a front unit on the street for commercial, rental or extended family use, while the rear is fully raised. The Central Stair house has a ventilated core that lends itself to coupling. The fifth prototype is a two-story house for small lots. All our prototypes negotiate elevation through a series of thresholds that begin at the ground and end with the raised story. Each comes with design variations for the street level, including stepped porches, garages and enclosed patios. Several offer the potential for rental units or two-family situations and serve to increase density on higher-ground lots. Given the low price point of the neighborhood, the houses are cost efficient: they use passive technologies for moving heat and air, such as orientation, ceiling height, heat chimneys, cross-ventilation, deep shading and jalousie shutters.

To keep the houses as affordable as possible, we assessed cost according to four construction methods: traditional stick-built on-site; prefabricated as a complete unit with wood studs; prefabricated as panels of steel studs to be sheathed on-site; and prefabricated with Structural Insulated Panels. We produced three sets of construction documents for each house and found that unless Acorn could build at least thirty of the 150 houses, prefabrication would have little impact on cost. Still, even a single house was far less costly than the heavily subsidized homes being built by high-profile developers like Global Green and the Make It Right Foundation. Our pricing increments came in at $140,000 for a 1,120-square-foot Best Shot and $240,000 for a 1,780-square-foot Mother-in-Law. The lesson of our comparative cost analysis is clear: it is cheaper to build a neighborhood than a house. Which is, of course, the financial corollary of our social claim: it is safer to build a neighborhood than a house.

Because Acorn could not finance 30 houses up front, we were unable to begin development at neighborhood scale. Instead, we took on the smallest sustainable unit, a housing cluster consisting of four lots on Caffin Avenue. But to date not a single house has been built. The organization was dragged into a media-enhanced political controversy, and although Congress eventually exonerated Acorn of any wrongdoing, it wasn’t before they had withdrawn from the project. Even before those troubles, however, Acorn Housing had been unable, or unwilling, to build an exhibition house that could stake a claim to the site and demonstrate the quality of the product they were offering. They lacked the financing and perhaps the experience to perform as developers for spec houses. Nor would they entertain a rent-to-own alternative, because they did not want to manage the ongoing maintenance and administration that rental properties require. They had hoped to spawn a community that would be bottom-up and self-run, not one needing top-down support for some time to come. Their increasing political difficulties made it hard to secure loans, so the burden of financing fell on prospective owners. Under the terms of the Road Home Program of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, returning residents are entitled to as much as $100,000 to rebuild, but they often receive much less and many have yet to see any money. None of the prospective buyers with whom we were working has been able to secure enough financing with Road Home grants, even in combination with local bank mortgages, for even a modestly priced home.

The current failure of this project is coincidental with a much larger crisis in the rebuilding effort. It points to the limits of an approach like ours when it is not supported by and coordinated with economic and physical plans at civic and larger scales. The city as a whole is rebounding, thankfully, but the neighborhoods that were at risk before the storm show only isolated pockets of redevelopment. The glamorous enclave of the Make It Right homes, funded by Brad Pitt, stands in the midst of a much larger area of devastation in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Village de l’Est.

Within the miles of abandoned real estate in New Orleans East, there lies a significant exception. The tightly knit Vietnamese community of Village de l’Est has returned, as organized by Father Vien The Nguyen, the dynamic pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. He and his parishioners have lobbied City Hall and have even taken on FEMA in order to secure their return. Their first triumph was getting FEMA to lay out the infrastructure for temporary trailers in a plan that could later be used for permanent housing for the elderly. With a strong connection to the watery landscape reminiscent of their homeland, they have come back to fish the lake for a living and replant rice and vegetables in expanded community gardens and, eventually, on hydroponic farms. They have overcome the paralyzing conflict between ecology and community by convincing authorities, from the federal government to the city, to buy into their interpretation of what it means to be safe. Their answers are subtle scenarios in which safe haven includes new (or perhaps old) ways of living with water, climate and landscape, of living in one’s house and of evacuating it.

Compared with the linguistic, cultural and economic specificity of the Vietnamese Village de l’Est, Plum Orchard and even the Lower Ninth Ward are in some ways typical of New Orleans — and of many American cities. Their refugee citizens, formerly regarded as banal suburbanites or marginal inner-city urbanites, are struggling to become decisive actors. They have asserted their right of return and thereby forced planners, politicians and strangers to understand the difference between political and physical safety. In doing so these residents have inspired us to understand how design can help negotiate this difference.

Editors' Note

“Below the Sill Plate” is excerpted from Beyond Shelter: Architecture and Human Dignity, edited by Marie J. Aquilino, forthcoming from Metropolis Books in association with D.A.P. / Distributed Art Publishers. It appears here courtesy of the publisher and author.

Author's Note

The work described in this essay is a truly collaborative, interdisciplinary project of professors Ronald Shiffman, Vicki Weiner, Brad Lander, Deborah Gans, and Larry Zeroth and their students at Pratt Institute; professors James Dart, Robert Svetz, Darius Sollohub, and Robert Dresnak and their students at the New Jersey Institute of Technology; professor Denise Hoffman Brandt and her students at City College of New York; David Bruner of the New York Botanical Garden; and Steve Handel of the Rutgers Center for Urban Restoration Ecology. The prototypes for Acorn Housing are the work of DARCH and Gans Studio.

  1. Many other pro bono and academic community-planning efforts did the same, including those of Cornell University and Louisiana State University.
  2. Much is owed for this to the infrastructure lead on our team, Darius Sollohub, who forged ties with various local planners, including St. Martin-Brown Associates.
Deborah Gans, “Below the Sill Plate: New Orleans East Struggles to Recover,” Places Journal, June 2011. Accessed 04 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Tim Culvahouse

    06.27.2011 at 15:44

    A wonderful effort and an insightful model, in many, many ways. Most prescient is the approach to community building through nested scales of development, which simultaneously allows a graduated response to the topographical gradient. Important, too, is the typological patterning, with its apparent attention to local precedents--I particularly appreciate the analogy drawn between the detached house and the urban townhouse, one of several parallels that actually or potentially link disparate New Orleans house types. The realistic appraisal of construction method and cost clinches the conception. I hope that the book will offer more complete documentation of both house types and planning patterns. I look forward to it.

  • Rolling Stone

    06.30.2011 at 19:14

    Would any of the people designing this choose to live there?