by Alison Toussaint-LeBeaux and Kelsey Wotila, AIA
Resilience is more apparent in the hearts and attitudes of native New Orleanians than the city’s infrastructure. When we examine recovering and rebuilding after Hurricane Ida, an architect can’t help but ask, why not solar as a systemic resilience strategy? In addition to thinking more about passive survivability as a general approach, we suggest that solar should be front and center as a resilience strategy. Solar can be a “short circuit” from reliance on Entergy, the controversial monopoly power supplier to the region.
While propane and gas generators are a staple for many households, they come with a stressful reliance on fuel. Immediately after Hurricane Ida, lines for gas were long (requiring hours of waiting with no guarantee you’d fill up. Power provided by generators or solar makes life a little easier for people while damage slowly gets repaired. People here band together; those with generators invite neighbors over for some cool air, charge their phones, and set up extension cords for others to charge theirs on porches. Folks empty their fridges and freezers to cook together over a grill and feed each other. This is the norm after a storm. After Ida, neighbors talked about falling asleep to the buzz of generators.
At the St. Peter Apartments, people could fall asleep without that sound. Solar panels are feasible for individual residences, and this multi-family project has capacity to run on solar in emergencies like storm recovery post-Ida. This EskewDumezRipple project made press, noted for its ability to keep the lights on and act as a community center providing charging and cooling stations for nearby residents who hadn’t evacuated.
The building is low-income housing, boasting an EUI of 23, enabling it to run off solar at limited capacity. Design decisions to create a solar-ready building came at little to no cost premium. It was no magic formula: LED lighting, SEER 17.6 heat pumps, “best-rated” EnergySTAR appliances, low window wall ratio (~11%), and an air-tight (.020 CFM75/sf-envelope) and well-insulated envelope (R-22 continuous and R-30 roof). While the building may architecturally be sparse, it is the first multi-family building in the city to function from solar when the rest of the city was scrambling for ice.
Wotila: Having been in the city for just over two years, Ida was my second hurricane. My first, Hurricane Zeta in fall 2020, quickly made me question this default to design without natural gas. After Zeta hurried through New Orleans, with no power, we were still able to light a match and cook on the gas stove. Suddenly, I understood why people might roll their eyes at an outsider advocating for all-electric buildings.
Toussaint-LeBeaux: Born and raised in New Orleans, weathering many storms, we always hope to have more assistance from those building the city. With newer hotels coming up, it would be helpful for any of those hotels to have generators that run the actual hotel guestrooms. Most, if not all, of the hotels in the city had generators that only ran the emergency elevators, locking folks in extremely uncomfortable spaces.
As architects designing for resilience, one of the first decisions to make is to design an all-electric building. St. Peter Apartments proved that solar buildings can perform the same function as gas stoves, allowing people to cook a meal amidst storm recovery. But residents didn’t have to go to the gas station in the middle of the night to keep their refrigerators running, stoves hot, and phones charged.
The group Together New Orleans advocates for “neighborhood lighthouses.” In the unfortunately inevitable recovery period following disasters, these buildings would act as shelters, food supply, refrigeration, preparation, internet, charging, and cooling stations. Solar is one obvious, sustainable, and resilient answer to these needs. In the short-term storm response, solar power alleviates burdens on the over-extended city, responding to medical emergencies, flooding, and assisted evacuations. Long-term, solar will eliminate burden on the outdated power grids in the region. It’s a win-win.
Architects can play a direct role in how our community can quickly respond to power outages due to climate disaster. Delivering design not reliant on dated infrastructure is an imperative. Much like St. Peter’s Residential, our neighbors with generators or solar panels, the community relies on a few buildings or structures to provide supplies and power. Residents of New Orleans have learned to fend for themselves, buying a means to generate power, stock supplies, and lean on each other. Instead of relying solely on personal preparedness as the defense against storm impacts, architects designing offices, multi-family housing, new developments, hotels, or residences should offer solar-ready buildings as a default. Now is the time to advocate for solar panels on roofs already in need of repair. Now is the time to design all-electric, solar-ready buildings.
Alison Toussaint-LeBeaux was born and raised in the Crescent City, the daughter of one of the city's most famous musical icons, the late Allen Toussaint. Alison spent the better part of her life in the entertainment industry in various areas: management, production, performer, and writer. Alison joined EskewDumezRipple firm as studio assistant, drawn to the creative buzz throughout the studio and the attention to beauty. Alison travels extensively, both nationwide and abroad; is an insatiable reader and loves music! She sits on the board of directors for both WYES and WWOZ and is an advocate for public broadcasting.
Kelsey Wotila. AIA, LEED AP BD+C, joined EskewDumezRipple as the studio’s yearlong Research Fellow, exploring embodied and operational carbon across a portfolio sample of projects. Her research put real world cost to ZEROCODE and Architecture 2030 targets for a range of project types. She then transitioned into full-time staff, in order to apply this research and advance all projects towards a more sustainable future. After practicing architecture and design, she moved toward understanding impacts of the building industry and built environment. Kelsey maintains that the role of architect should be as advocate, for the client and for the site, and on a macro scale, for the planet. As Chair of the 2030 Committee at AIA New Orleans, she provides resources for local firms to join and achieve the AIA 2030 Commitment targets. The resulting architecture is the solution that fulfills the needs of the land, the user, and future users. As architects, she believes it is our role to blend numbers and beauty in creating sustainable spaces that people love.