Five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, home builders are still working to rebuild the city’s homes, and more of them are doing it with sustainability in mind.

According to Jon Luther, executive vice president of the HBA of Greater New Orleans, nearly 90% of homes in the area sustained damage in the massive 2005 storm and ensuing levee breaches, which left more than 200,000 housing units completely destroyed or in need of major renovation. Green building proponents quickly called for sustainable rebuilding of the Crescent City.

“In the really early aftermath of the storm, as you might imagine, we had folks from all over the world and the country that were in good faith and with good intentions suggesting how we might go about getting ourselves rebuilt and rehabilitated,” Luther recalled during a recent Webinar presentation about the rebuilding of New Orleans. “But right after the storm, we were just trying to stay viable…  As we started to make progress once we literally got our legs underneath us we started to look at a lot of these initiatives.”

At first, some HBA members were reluctant to explore high-performance home building, Luther said. “In terms of the energy-efficient and green building technologies that started to be introduced here, I would say we were starting from less than scratch,” he said. “We’ve always been a site-built, stick-built kind of region with very little experimental or alternative building going on.”

For example, before Katrina, New Orleans had no municipal recycling program or uniform state building code. Many houses were built with little or no insulation, and local pros were skeptical of the idea of super-tight dwellings.

“Their immediate concern was to not button up the houses too tightly,” Luther said. “They know that the houses down here have to have decent air exchange.”

But while the rise of green home building in New Orleans has been slow, progress is being made, Luther noted. New products and techniques such as spray-foam insulation, mechanical ventilation, insulated ductwork, efficient air conditioning systems, and SIPs and modular construction are catching on. The HBA’s Crescent City Green Building Council boasts 90 members, and some houses are being certified to the National Green Building Standard.

“Since the hurricane, we’ve been seeing two or three years of progress in green building in New Orleans,” said veteran green builder Ron Jones, also a Webinar panelist. “It seems to me that a good portion of the membership has turned the corner and is now offering a more updated and responsive version of the product they’ve been offering all along.”

Luther said he is not worried that the recent BP oil spill affecting parts of his jurisdiction will slow down the momentum toward more sustainable home building in the New Orleans metro area. But closer to the spill in the Grand Isle and Venice communities, almost all construction has come to a halt.

“Literally everyone is out there trying to respond,” he said. “It’s a Herculean effort.”

If the problem isn’t resolved soon, Luther said, there will be fallout for many local builders.

“The folks who build and renovate homes for people in the fishing industry and the oil and gas industry will take a real hit,” he said. “A lot of the lessons we learned from Katrina about how to get our legs back under us are relevant here with the BP spill but we haven’t had to employ them, yet.”

Jennifer Goodman is Senior Editor, Online for EcoHome.