Brad Pitt foundation embroiled in lawsuits

Make it Right homes
Make It Right homes on December 20, 2013 in New Orleans. Photo Credit by Veronica Dominach, The New Orleans Advocate.

In 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina, actor Brad Pitt founded the Make it Right foundation to rebuild safe and sustainable homes in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. Led by GRAFT architects, the organization convened 21 world-renowned architects to design climate-adapted, eco-friendly homes inspired by William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle principles.

Earlier this month, an attorney filed a class-action suit against the Make It Right foundation on behalf of many Lower 9th Ward residents. And last week, Make It Right filed a $20 million lawsuit against its chief architect. The lawsuit alleges that defective design resulted in moisture and water intrusion problems (water intrusion claims are the most common allegation on residential projects).

This architect is allegedly not one who volunteered his services. It’s been reported that Make It Right paid the defendant more than $4 million to produce architectural drawings for more than 100 homes under the program.

In 2014, Make it Right also paid an average of $12,000 on each of 39 homes to replace environmentally friendly weatherproof lumber called TimberSIL, which was meant to hold up for decades, but began deteriorating after a few years. It was reported in the Times-Picayune that Make It Right sued the lumber company for $500,000, although it’s unclear if that claim has been resolved. As these cases unfold, we will report on important developments.

Background on Make it Right and Cradle to Cradle

Cradle to Cradle design is characterized by the following:

  • Materials are defined as biological and/or technical nutrients for safe use and reuse
  • Products are designed for disassembly/recovery
  • Uses renewable energy
  • Maintains and enhances water quality
  • Honors social fairness and human dignity
  • Improvement is continuous and aspirational

Over the course of many months, Pitt and the architects, who volunteered their time and work, met with Lower 9th Ward homeowners and community leaders to talk about their rebuilding needs and collaborate on home designs.

Many well-known architects—including Frank Gehry, David Adjaye, and Shigeru Ban— developed housing designs. Among the projects were a staggered duplex by Gehry, a “floating house” by American studio Morphosis, an elevated property by Los Angeles’ Atelier Hitoshi Abe, and a residence with a faceted roof by Pugh + Scarpa. Berlin firm GRAFT and Dutch studio MVRDV also contributed to the project.

To date, the foundation has spent approximately $26 million and built about 110 houses, which have sold for an average price of $150,000. Unfortunately, some of the homes are now said to be falling apart. Residents have reported sagging porches, water leaks, black mold, foundation issues, and poor health. In June, one of the homes, described by the Times-Picayune as “a tattered loaf of rotting wood, fraying tarpaulin and ominous open doorways,” was demolished. The demolition was paid for by Make It Right.

This is a good time to remember, however, that whether a design professional is providing services on a pro bono basis or in an emergency situation (access limited to Schinnerer policyholders and brokers), they are not shielded from liability for damages caused by their negligence. There is no specific immunity for design professionals providing emergency relief services. The general rule is that design professionals must perform voluntary or emergency services (access limited to Schinnerer policyholders and brokers) in accordance with the same care and diligence as other design professionals providing similar services under the same conditions. Failure to meet that standard of care may result in legal liability.

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