Hollywood screenwriters could not have come up with a script this compelling: Canada’s own contractor extraordinaire Mike Holmes teams up with A-list movie star Brad Pitt to restore the devastated Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. But it’s not a movie; it’s the real-life adventure to make practical and pretty homes for some of those who lost theirs in Hurricane Katrina. Both of the guys behind the project just happen to be household names.
Great minds do, indeed, think alike. Pitt named the rebuilding plan Make It Right, which just happens to be Holmes’s philosophy and trademarked motto. Holmes and his crew offered to build — for free — the first high-tech, low-cost home for Pitt’s project. Last summer, nearly three years after Katrina cut a path of destruction through the famed city, they braved oppressive heat, homesickness and even another hurricane to spend 10 weeks on the site — half the usual timeline for this type of construction. Their efforts are chronicled in Holmes in New Orleans, a two-part special for Global TV and a six-part series on HGTV. Holmes tells me conditions were more difficult than he imagined. “We’re in a place where we didn’t know anyone, it was a lot hotter than we’re used to and we were separated from family and friends.”
Conditions took their toll on the crew. As the series progressed, some literally couldn’t stand the heat and dropped off the project, creating extra pressure on an already stressful situation Holmes says he even considered doffing his signature duds in order to cope. “I threatened every day to peel off my overalls because they were soaking wet.” Fans of HGTV’s Holmes on Homes are already familiar with his tell-it-like-it-is style and refusal to compromise quality and safety. Holmes and his crew bring those same sensibilities to producing the first LEED house for life-long New Orleans resident Gloria, who lost everything when the levees broke. She’s a tiny 68-year-old powerhouse who’s raising her grandchildren on her own and she’s eager to move back.
LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — is a third-party rating system for high-performance green buildings. “The idea of a LEED home is that it’s cradle to cradle,” Holmes explains. “It uses products that can be taken from the earth and put back into the earth. It’s environmentally friendly, energy-efficient, using solar technology, wind turbines. It’s mould-resistant, water-resistant, termites don’t like the wood we used … I could go on and on.” Television news cameras have long ago moved on to fresher human dramas since Katrina’s impact on New Orleans, but things are far from back to normal.
“Downtown is all right, but it’s like people have blinders on,” Holmes says. “If you go 10 minutes out of the city, it’s all just devastation. But they don’t look to the left or the right and they say, ‘Everything’s fine.’ It was so bad that I was really bothered. I keep going back to the government. They just don’t care.” Holmes says that Gloria’s home is built to last, even if the unthinkable happens and another major storm comes ashore. “We built a house that’s eight feet off the ground and can withstand a Category 5 hurricane. I’m so proud of what we did, and if this series doesn’t open up the eyes of the world to what it’s still like for the people there, I don’t know what will.”
Holmes spent time with both Pitt and his equally famous partner, Angelina Jolie, and describes them as, “extremely nice, sensible, easygoing people.” But don’t expect him to go Hollywood. “I’m not much for the red carpet. Unless something goes wrong with it — then I’ll be there.” Holmes in New Orleans debuts April 7 on Global and April 9 on HGTV.