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Demand drives growth of green suppliers

Peter Seltzer, owner of Canopy-Habitat for Sustainable Living, a New Orleans store specializing in eco-friendly building supplies, shows a water fixture and basin to Savannah Stachan. Since Hurricane Katrina, businesses offering energy-saving, recycled and renewable building products have made their way into the marketplace. Photo by Frank Aymami

Peter Seltzer, owner of Canopy-Habitat for Sustainable Living, a New Orleans store specializing in eco-friendly building supplies, shows a water fixture and basin to Savannah Stachan. Since Hurricane Katrina, businesses offering energy-saving, recycled and renewable building products have made their way into the marketplace. Photo by Frank Aymami

Emilie Bahr
Dolan Media Newswires

Green has been the buzz in New Orleans building since Hurricane Katrina wiped out much of the existing housing stock and shined a new spotlight on the city’s ecological vulnerability.

Despite growing interest, one significant impediment to green building locally has historically been a dearth of green building supplies, an issue highlighted in a recent Sierra Club report on green building in the Crescent City.

Today, however, the picture is changing as purveyors of energy-saving, recycled, renewable and low-toxicity building products make their way into the local marketplace. New eco-oriented businesses now open in New Orleans range from solar panel installers and insulation companies to an expanding array of retailers specializing in green design and building materials.

Before Katrina, “it was just a totally foreign concept to build green to the vast majority of people here,” said Forest Bradley-Wright, sustainable rebuild coordinator at the Alliance for Affordable Energy.

Since the storm, Bradley-Wright said, “A lot of people have heard about it and taken interest and one of the most important challenges for building green was ‘Where do I get these products and how do I find someone who is willing to install them?’”

It was a post-Katrina rebuild that served as the inspiration for the “eco-modern” design store owned by longtime friends Nomita Joshi-Gupta and Cheryl Nix Murphy.

Joshi-Gupta is an architect whose Broadmoor home was flooded after the 2005 storm, which pushed Murphy and her family to Oxford, Miss.

“I thought, ‘This is terrible what happened,’” Joshi-Gupta said. “But here is a great chance to make my house my aesthetic.”

It was in her hunt for salvaged materials and other environmentally sensitive products that a business plan began to take shape. She enlisted Murphy, whom she had met in graduate school at the University of New Orleans’ Department of Planning and Urban Studies. Like Joshi-Gupta, Murphy had an eye for design and additionally possessed a background in historic preservation and environmental science.

The pair opened their store, Spruce, in December 2008, initially setting up shop in the Warehouse District.

The store’s offerings run the gamut of recycled and renewable design products including custom made rugs, wall coverings, countertops and outdoor furniture.

Another store owner to seize on the need for green supplies is Peter Seltzer, creator of Canopy, a green building supply store.

Seltzer, a New Orleans native, was studying entrepreneurship at Temple University and working as a corporate sustainability consultant when he got the idea for his business. “There was the demand, but there wasn’t the supply” of green building projects available, Seltzer said of the local market at the time.

Canopy’s products range from countertop materials made from recycled paper and recycled glass to renewable flooring materials, nontoxic paints, LED lighting fixtures and low-water plumbing fixtures. The store has also formed a partnership with EcoUrban, a local sustainable landscaping company founded in 2007, and sells rainwater cisterns for use in home-irrigation systems.

“We’re really trying to develop the market here,” Seltzer said. “There really is a demand and need for these products.”

Bradley-Wright is excited by the swell in green building product suppliers but said there is still room for those products to move into the mainstream.

“People only think of a few places to go to buy their mainstream building materials,” he said. “And those big box retailers have a tendency to sell a lot of products that aren’t green.”

Jon Luther, executive vice president of the Greater New Orleans Home Builders Association, said green-building products increasingly will become the norm as customers demand them. But while interest is significantly more pronounced than it was it was even two years ago when his organization launched its green-building program, a “critical mass” of local consumers interested in such products has yet to be reached.

“At the end of the day, any movement still at some level has to be generated by the home-buying clientele,” Luther said.  “Our builders are going to respond to demand and our vendors are going to respond to the products and techniques that our builders are using.”

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