From Katrina Wreckage to Workshop

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Brad Deal

This pew is made of 19th-century cypress reclaimed from a home in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina

Rebuilding a city isn't just about clearing away the wreckage and starting over from scratch — at least not when there are pieces worth saving. That's especially true in New Orleans, where many Creole townhouses and shotgun homes were built from centuries-old cypress native to the region and dense oak boards pulled from the sides of barges. Now Sergio Palleroni, an architecture professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has launched a project that uses wood salvaged from homes destroyed by the hurricane to build new furniture for local residents that could also be sold in boutiques around the country. "The furniture — you touch it and you feel New Orleans," says Palleroni, whose first three prototypes — a minimalist pew, table, and set of nesting boxes — will be on display starting May 4 at the "Design for the Other 90%" exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City.

The initial goal of the Katrina Furniture Project is to create a network of workshops where residents can both make furniture and gain basic carpentry skills. "They are going to learn the skills to do repairs in their own home. So next time the storm comes, they don't have to wait 18 months for the federal government to react," explains Palleroni, who says he is alarmed not only by the "federal paralysis" that has stalled recovery but also by the cache of cultural artifacts that have already been lost to landfills. "It may be happening to New Orleans, but it's really symbolic of our whole society," he says. "This is representative of the kinds of challenges we need to address, not just because it affects the poor, but because it is about how wasteful we are as a society."

While many destroyed homes have yet to be razed, the remains of those that have either wind up in landfills or get dumped into the surrounding lakes and bayous. That's a shame, says Bryan Bell of the non-profit Design Corps who is consulting on the Katrina Furniture Project and worries that New Orleans' distinctive architecture will vanish in a city still dotted with FEMA trailers. Many of the materials used to build the homes more than a century ago are irreplaceable, including the virgin cypress from local swamps and antique "barge boards." Made of 2-in.-thick oak, the boards came from the sides of barges, which were built in the Midwest but got scrapped after making their way down the Mississippi River to New Orleans more than a century ago. "You couldn't buy those materials anywhere. They would be so expensive," says Bell.

Each prototype designed by Palleroni and a team of University of Texas students has both a practical and symbolic function. The cypress table, for example, pays homage to the Crescent City's fame as a foodie heaven. The pews evoke places of worship, nearly a thousand of which were destroyed in hurricanes Rita and Katrina. "After the storms, churches were the one part of society that really worked in New Orleans," says Palleroni. "The government collapsed. The police disappeared. But the churches were there for people."

And while it may be hard to imagine how any wood could be reused after the devastation and subsequent mold infestations, finding raw material has been the easy part. Palleroni partnered with a local non-profit called The Green Project, which has operated as a materials exchange for everything from paint to wrought iron for over 12 years. "We're roadkill specialists," says David Reynolds, executive director of The Green Project, who adds that the mold can usually be sanded or wiped off before the wood gets reused. "New Orleans has always been moldy. It's not really bad," he says. Anything from shutters to window frames to mantels can be reused, and finished furniture that leaves the state as part of the Project's eventual goal of selling the pieces in shops around the country will get treated with a borate wash to protect it from termites.

On May 23, Palleroni and his student team will head back to New Orleans to begin work on the Katrina Furniture Project's first neighborhood workshop at the edge of the Ninth Ward, just six blocks from the faulty levees. For now the project is funded by universities and private foundations. But eventually, Palleroni hopes to create a viable business in which locally built furniture — all made from recycled wood — would be sold nationwide, providing jobs for local residents who will make each piece by hand and pocket the profits. He's also teaming up this summer with Brad Guy, a researcher at the Hamer Center for Community Design at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of the new book Unbuilding: Salvaging the Architectural Treasures of Unwanted Houses, to launch a home rebuilding program in East Biloxi and Pearlington, Mississippi, that will use recycled yellow pine, heart pine and cypress to create stylish, middle-income houses. Once Palleroni's recycled furniture finds a home in those and other rebuilt homes, then maybe the only waste left will be those ugly FEMA trailers.