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How Cities Like New Orleans Blend Smart-Building Resiliency With Historic Properties

‘You can teach an old building new tricks’

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In New Orleans’ French Quarter, rain-water pools beneath cast-iron balconies, historic streetcars pass signs advertising hurricane evacuation routes, and Mardi Gras beads dangle from the porches of Creole cottages that endured the brutality of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Graveyards sit above sea level, a New Orleans hallmark that’s sparked many a tour.

Watery environmental disasters have seeped into New Orleans’ architecture and integrated with the city’s very identity. As a city of melded cultures — Creole, French, African American, to name just a few — it shares overlapping histories through its infrastructure. But, as a city battered by storms and exposed to the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans shares its future with an environment in flux.

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In response to climate concerns, New Orleans has prioritized resilient, smart building strategies, as have other threatened cities across the world. 

Yet climactic goals, whether through zero-emission strategies or net-zero plans, can clash with the culture, identity and history of a place. Neighborhoods with distinctive identities therefore face not only the physical threats of climate change, but also less tangible threats of lost histories, overwritten stories and forgotten pasts. These threats come from both the environment, as storms jeopardize a city’s physical future, and from city or business initiatives that focus on resilience and energy-efficiency upgrades at the expense — sometimes inadvertently — of preservation. 

New Orleans, however, epitomizes the ways in which history and culture can coexist with climate. The city is prioritizing the future, but that doesn’t mean bulldozing over the past. It’s likewise prioritizing preservation, but that doesn’t mean sacrificing the future. 

Priming a place for climate change is a twofold endeavor, often divided into adaptation and mitigation. The adaptation component refers to creating infrastructure that can better equip a building to withstand natural and human-caused climate disasters. The mitigation component refers to efforts from building owners and companies to minimize their contributions to climate change by way of carbon footprints — mitigating its effects down the line. 

On the adaptation side, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) considers culture in its approach to redevelopment. NORA — whose own building in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood periodically endures street flooding — has projects in the works in Saint Bernard and North Claiborne, an area regarded for its 1920s architecture, not far from the historic French Quarter.  

“We have to make certain that we are good guardians and stewards of preserving that level of culture when it comes to the extent of design and what that design looks like,” said Brenda Breaux, executive director at NORA. “And it doesn’t look like it was flown in from Mars.”

A resilient but culturally and historically responsible building should be reflective of a neighborhood — “but not so reflective that it doesn’t represent opportunities to demonstrate that we have come to another juncture, and we’ve now had to build a little bit smarter,” said Breaux. 

Sometimes, history has already put in the work to achieve this balance. New Orleans’ French Quarter, one of the city’s most historic neighborhoods, comes with locational advantages. The neighborhood towers at a higher elevation than other New Orleans neighborhoods with newer buildings. 

“The sort of natural development pattern and growth of the city means that the oldest buildings are typically in some of the best locations from a climate resilience perspective,” said Seth Knudsen, chief of strategy, programs and projects at NORA.

New Orleans’ history sets yet another example architecturally. The city has actually returned to some of the principles — namely, building materials and methods — of its earliest buildings. “If you look at how our ancestors built when the city was first settled, they were building three feet off the ground, and we’ve kind of gone back to that,” said Knudsen. 

Granted, other architectural styles have proven less effective. New Orleans’ slab-on-grade ranch houses from the mid-20th century aren’t a great fit for the environment, said Knudsen. The living areas of those homes sit six to 12 inches above grade, rather than the three feet of their predecessors. 

Such situations present challenges from an environmental perspective, though old buildings aren’t a lost cause.

“You can teach an old building new tricks,” said Knudsen. “So, you can retrofit just about any building to meet a modern standard and it won’t look like it from the outside, and that’s a good thing.”  

The same attitude for improving a building’s resilience holds true from the energy side of smart building. It doesn’t make sense to tear historic buildings down, said Jens Böhnlein, global head of asset management and sustainability at Commerz. He zeroed in on the importance of a building’s carbon footprint. By generating renewable energy in an historic building, you can still contribute positively to the environment.

“Whenever you have the chance to make it better, to use less energy, you should do so,” said Böhnlein.

While there’s plenty to upgrade, there’s also plenty not to upgrade, depending on the place in question. Updating historic buildings is best done on a case-by-case basis; for example, you wouldn’t want to insulate all the beautiful, historic facades in France, said Böhnlein, whereas Germany, by comparison, lacks those facades given its World War II history. 

Upgrading the energy of historic buildings also comes with financial challenges. It’s often cheaper to improve a building’s operational footprint — the total energy exerted to heat, cool, light, power and operate a building — by starting from scratch rather than refurbishing a building, said David-Alexandre Dahan, industry initiatives director at CREFC Europe, a trade group for commercial real estate lenders. 

You can’t do as much with protected buildings as you would with new ones, said Dahan, with the caveat that they represent just a small fraction of the world’s buildings.

Of course, beginning anew isn’t really an option for protected, historic buildings, nor is it an option for reducing a building’s embodied carbon: the carbon that comes from building materials. New development, whether adaptive reuse, renovation or ground-up, should be as climate-resilient as possible, Odisseas Athanasiou, CEO of Lamda Development — an Athens, Greece-based real estate developer — told Commercial Observer via email. 

“This aligns with a preservationist strategy,” said Athanasiou. “Buildings can be repurposed or updated in a thoughtful way, especially because it’s typically a better carbon strategy to reuse what you have if possible and not use new natural resources.”

Preservation simultaneously protects a city’s history and the environment’s resources. By 2050, 85 percent of today’s current building stock will remain, said Dahan. “So, it’s really important to focus on refurbishment right now to get to that point rather than just the new build.”

As for new buildings? History doesn’t have to be fully in the past. In the center of Athens, Greece, Lamda’s current project, the Ellinikon, is under development as a multi-use complex. As a brand-new project, the development is not a historic one — but its location certainly is. 

Built atop the site of the old Athens airport from 1938 and the site of the 2004 Summer Olympics, the Ellinikon combines the old with the new, both preserving and rewriting history. Within that location, the Ellinikon is aiming for 100 percent renewable energy, thanks in part to plans for a renewable energy park. 

“In a city such as Athens, which has an ancient history of global importance, there is clearly a significant amount of culture to preserve,” Athanasiou said. “However, it’s also crucial to ensure that modern cities be able to develop storied histories of their own.”

We need to create environmentally resilient spaces that simultaneously drive long-term economic prosperity, according to Athanasiou. Neither protecting the environment nor protecting history trump one another in importance; rather it’s about finding a building and land solution that satisfies as many needs as possible. You can use new development to benefit historic areas, Athanasiou added.

Other cities, particularly European ones, likewise bear this responsibility to balance cultural heritage with resilient and energy-conscious endeavors. While New Orleans has plenty to preserve, the timeline of American real estate is condensed when compared to places like Athens and the rest of Europe, whose history includes everything from the Roman Empire to the Renaissance to the French Revolution. 

As a whole, Europe has widely committed to ESG and leaned into its environmental and historic responsibilities. Take St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy, where the ornate facade of the ninth century St. Mark’s Basilica fights back consistent, severe flooding from its canal-adjacent piazza. To combat this flooding, glass barriers have become an infrastructural fixture in the piazza.

The maintenance required for both climate endeavors and historic and cultural preservation exposes a strategic commonality: Both are ongoing processes. You can’t just build a building and assume the rest is going to follow through, said Böhnlein, who identified continuous curation as an area in which the real estate sector can improve. 

To encourage this improvement, a reward system may prove handy. In Germany, for example, cars that reach the 30-year mark receive an age plate that comes with special tax reductions. 

“I believe we need the same for some of the real estate products in historical areas in city centers of all cities which are 600 years old,” said Böhnlein. “They need an age plate because we want to retain the past in order to remember what happened to the world before.”

Herein underscores both the key to and importance of preservation, which isn’t about a building’s aesthetic or age so much as it is stories — and the people who tell them. 

Back in New Orleans, in the Seventh Ward neighborhood, NORA has plans for a mural on the side of an apartment building at 1429 St. Bernard Avenue. A stage will also be integrated into the publicly accessible space, with the hopes that it will become part of the Mardi Gras Indian route and a place for performances.

“That was a very intentional, unusual design element that I don’t think you will see at any other mixed-income housing project, probably anywhere in the country,” said Knudsen.  

NORA focuses predominantly on affordable housing in historic communities, so it addresses residents who may not have other options for preserving their culture and stories otherwise. Culture bearers, said Knudsen, are often low- to moderate-income individuals and therefore require support to remain in the communities they’ve occupied for generations. 

Environmental solutions and culture preservation therefore have to go hand in hand, said Breaux. “Just as we’re preserving buildings, we’re preserving people; we’re preserving that wonderful New Orleans culture that we just can’t let it go by the wayside,” she said. “It’s part of what we do. It’s intentionally part of what we do.”