New Approach Tom Darden, executive director of Make It Right, leads a team that delivers affordable, high-performance homes in communities hit by natural and socioeconomic disasters.
Daymon Gardner New Approach Tom Darden, executive director of Make It Right, leads a team that delivers affordable, high-performance homes in communities hit by natural and socioeconomic disasters.

Disasters come in many forms. There are the natural ones, like Hurricane Katrina, that make headlines, galvanize relief efforts, and inspire philanthropic support. And then there are disasters on an economic or social scale, such as urban blight and failed federal policies, which rarely register on the public radar. To Make It Right—recipient of the inaugural Hanley Award for Community Service in Sustainability—it doesn’t matter what the disaster is, only that it leaves behind a need for decent, affordable homes to rebuild communities and, with that, the dignity of residents. The nonprofit defines “decent and affordable” as LEED Platinum single-family homes priced no more than $150,000 and apartments that rent for as low as $200 a month; as utility bills that are a small fraction of the comparable norm; and as homes built to survive disasters.

Forged in 2007 by actor, philanthropist, and amateur architect Brad Pitt, the nonprofit initially set out to rebuild part of New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward that nearly was wiped clean in 2005 by Katrina. At last count, 100 new single-family homes—all LEED Platinum and some operated at a net-zero energy balance—have been built and are occupied by families on or near the land where their homes stood before the storm. Another 12 homes are under construction toward the nonprofit’s goal of 150.

Beyond the Bayou

Since breaking ground in the Lower 9th six years ago, Make It Right has been asked to bring its approach and expertise to housing projects in New Jersey, Missouri, and Montana, among others, to help communities recover from socioeconomic disasters.

“There are obvious correlations between Katrina and the economic disaster of the reservations,” says Jason Campbell of Missoula, Mont.–based Areté Development, the visionary behind a single-family home project for the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes at the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. “What Make it Right was doing in New Orleans and the challenges they faced with that project seemed very similar to tribal housing challenges.”

Campbell was most intrigued by the nonprofit’s approach to community engagement—namely meetings Make It Right conducts with residents to gather their input before even suggesting a solution. “Tribal citizens had never been asked what they wanted, needed, or valued in their homes and communities,” he says.

The Fort Peck discovery process took about a year. Released in June, the five distinctive designs by architects reflect and seek to restore a semblance of the cultural, social, and economic heritage of the tribes stripped away by the reservation system, combined with the highest levels of energy, water, and other resource efficiencies at a price tribal citizens can afford. “The tribes were at a turning point of not wanting to replicate the past, but to do better,” says Tom Darden, Make It Right’s executive director. “They challenged us to design with traditional values of living in harmony with the land that were basic and fundamental, but truly inspiring.” Construction of the first 20 homes is slated to begin soon.

A few years earlier, a similar scene played out in Kansas City, Mo. The 1999 closure of a century-old elementary school initiated a spiral of inner-city decline that by 2009 rendered the Manheim Park neighborhood nearly vacant and known among locals as the “killing ZIP code.” Invited by the neighborhood association to engage the project, Make It Right applied its model to Manheim Park in 2010. Among its project partners was BNIM Architects, a Kansas City-based firm that had contributed a home design to the Lower 9th. (Bob Berkebile, principal at BNIM, is the 2014 recipient of The Hanley Award for Vision and Leadership in Sustainability.)

The result, unveiled in 2013, is a true, sustainable transformation. The abandoned three-story school became a mixed-use building, and Make It Right added a handful of rental townhomes around one corner. The 50 LEED Platinum units rent for no more than $600 a month, and the project restored energy, pride, and dignity in the community.

On A Mission

To date, Make It Right lists 10 projects on its docket, all devoted to the same principle—building sustainable homes for people in need. “And to prove that you can build a beautifully designed, LEED Platinum certified home for the same price as a conventional home,” says director of communications Taylor Royle. The nonprofit is within a few dollars of a $130-per-square-foot benchmark in New Orleans.

While Make It Right is willing, if by invitation only, to share and apply its model to other high-impact areas, it is steadfast in its approach to create housing that reflects specific needs as expressed by members of the communities in which it works, and to deliver them at the highest levels of performance. Out of respect for that tenet and the areas it serves, Make It Right’s designs are not available to the public. “We’re not building a library of plans that can be placed anywhere,” Royle says. That counter to housing’s mainstream culture is refreshing, but also necessary to its mission.

“Our approach isn’t just replicable, it’s imperative,” Darden says. “What isn’t replicable is building slab-on-grade ranch houses below sea level,” among other cookie-cutter approaches to affordable family housing.

What isn’t exclusive to the nonprofit is its enviable skill wrangling public and private funds, from tax credits and community development dollars to cash and in-kind gifts; it just isn’t how most builders choose to do business.

Darden says others with a similar objective could replicate what they do—figuring out how to afford the highest standards of sustainability rather than calculating how much green can be bought on the cheap. “We might have a broader impact if we built more units that are less green, but that’s not our reality.”

That reality, however, affects residents of the areas in which Make It Right builds almost beyond measure. “Anyone can come in and place a LEED Platinum house on a landscape,” Campbell says. “Make It Right is committed to long-term partnerships and relationships, and that’s what makes its approach successful.”