From Greenbuild To Debris Field

Reflections of a volunteer: examining the charrettes dedicated to resurrecting the new orleans schools.

In November 2005, more than 10,000 people gathered in Atlanta to participate in the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) annual Greenbuild Conference. Attendees from around the world were treated to an impressive array of world class speakers, informative sessions and trade show events. And, as usual, Atlanta and the sponsors of Greenbuild showed their classic Southern hospitality.

But this Greenbuild was different from those held previously. Coming only two months after Hurricane Katrina, the USGBC and several other concerned organizations hosted a series of four design charrettes focused on the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. The events were energized by a combination of urgency and optimism that was palpable. At the bottom of the overwhelming destruction lie the still living roots of recovery. The attendees of the charrettes knew they were a part of something that will make history.

One of the four charrettes was dedicated to resurrecting the New Orleans schools. Approximately 40 people gathered in concert with approximately 120 others who were addressing planning and reconstruction issues concurrently in three other charrettes. Scores of others sat in between conference events. Still others registered their thoughts and feelings on posters made available at the New Orleans Planning Session kiosk.

As the charrette ran its course, it was obvious that the tenets of sustainable design and development were in play and the desire to reinvent the schools in the crucible of the high-performance green school movement was entrenched and in very good hands. Local and regional members of the USGBC, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and several New Orleans community service and non-profit organizations were joined with others from around the United States. The LEED for Schools Committee, the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, Global Green, BuildingGreen Inc., and several teachers complimented the core group of the New Orleans recovery team. It was an inspirational and informative gathering that fed on the energy and enthusiasm of the larger New Orleans Planning Charrette.

The work of the charrette is documented in Learning From Disaster – A Vision and Plan for Sustainable Schools and Revitalized Public Education Along the Gulf Coast in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina. (See Sidebar) It takes its place as part of the larger New Orleans Principles produced to document the overall charrette event.

volunteer experience

My experience in Atlanta moved me to spend the second week in December volunteering my labor as part of the effort to refurbish the schools. I was hosted by Hamilton Simon Jones, the Director of Community Relations for Tulane University, and John Williams, AIA, a central figure in the New Orleans recovery effort. I had the privilege of sharing a house with several Tulane University students who have been volunteering since Katrina ravaged their school and their neighborhoods. Part of my week was spent painting and moving furniture into an elementary school in anticipation of students whose return I got to witness Dec. 14; an occasion I will always remember.

The remainder of the week was spent removing debris from a flood-damaged learning and after school center; something I will never forget. It was the experience I was looking for – to be able to work with a small group of volunteers who came together from the community and around the US to serve anonymously and without fanfare. To be able to see first hand the aftermath of one of the greatest disasters in our history, and stand with people of indomitable spirit dedicated to rebuilding their community and the schools within them. In the course of working, much of our conversation was about the issues of local government, the School Board, fractured teacher union relationships, and the emergence of charter schools as the seeming insurmountable problems that still face New Orleans and the schools.

I reflected often on the School Charrettes and the work that was done in Atlanta. How different it was to be standing waste deep in debris. My stay ended with a tour of some of the schools that are back up and running. Our discussions about high-performance schools and integrated curriculums were at once exhilarating and surreal. I asked many of those I met how they are coping and what they intend to do to get some semblance of normalcy back in their lives. I heard different versions of the same answer over and over: “We will do what we have to do to get our children back in school. That’s why we are here.”

Sidebar: guiding principles of gulf coast sustainable schools

  1. Respect the rights of residents – All Gulf Coast residents affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, including those displaced and living elsewhere, have the right to return to livable communities, with school-aged children able to attend schools that are safe, healthy, productive places of learning.
  2. Provide for participatory planning – Utilize local talent in an inclusive planning process to rebuild and to operate Gulf Coast schools. Residents whose children and grandchildren will go through the schools, and even the children themselves, should have a role in determining what those schools will be.
  3. Value diversity and the role of schools in creating community – Build on the traditional strength of diverse, mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods in which schools serve as community beacons. Schools should become “community centers of learning” that provide access for art, music, adult education, and other services for the entire community. Redesign and repurpose schools to serve this role-helping to restore strong communities.
  4. Protect schools from future disasters – Locate and build schools to minimize risk of damage from future storms, flooding, or other natural or manmade disasters. Seek natural protection afforded by site selection, elevation, and proximity to open spaces. Expand levees and other flood protection infrastructure to serve multiple uses, including school athletic programs and wildland buffers that can serve educational purposes.
  5. Provide for passive survivability – School campuses and buildings should be designed and built or rebuilt to maintain living conditions in the event of extended interruptions of power, fuel, water, or sewage disposal-passive survivability. Schools, which often serve as emergency shelters in a community, should provide a livable refuge and help neighborhoods achieve a level of disaster resilience.
  6. Honor the past; build for the future – In the rebuilding of damaged schools and the construction of new schools, honor the traditions and vernacular of the region, while creating 21st-Century facilities that are durable, affordable to operate, and healthy to occupy. Schools should embody the best available practices in achieving high standards of energy, structural, environmental, and human health performance.
  7. Seek partnerships – Recognize that schools are part of communities, and foster partnerships with all segments of communities, including the business sector. Look for opportunities, through partnerships, to strengthen or create new local economies based on economic resilience.
  8. Focus on the long term – All measures related to rebuilding and ecological restoration, even short-term efforts, must be undertaken with explicit attention to the long-term solutions.

The above is from “Learning From Disaster – A Vision and Plan for Sustainable Schools and Revitalized Public Education Along the Gulf Coast in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina.” USGBC Sustainable Schools Charrette, Atlanta, Nov. 5 – 11, 2005.

Published by/on: Environmental Design + Construction