The cost of building a sustainable house still has a ways to fall, but living in one has already been kind to Leggett-Barnes's household budget. Compared with her home pre-Katrina, her average energy bill has shrunk more than 80 percent. "I used to break out in a sweat when that electric bill came in the mail," she says, pouring sweet iced tea in her kitchen. Now, when her solar panels produce more juice than her family consumes, the extra electricity is sold back to the power company, which then gives her a credit for the surplus.
As well as padding her wallet, Leggett-Barnes's house has also improved her health. She has struggled with asthma for most of her life; these days, her symptoms have all but vanished. "This is my fresh air machine," she says, pointing out the ventilation system in the hallway closet that keeps fresh air cycling through and prevents mold growth—a plague of substandard homes in hot, humid climates. Down the street, the parents of two asthmatic children who live in Make It Right homes attest that their kids have been able to stop taking their asthma medications.
"What makes my house green and biodegradable and efficient—what makes it good for the Earth—is also good for me," Leggett-Barnes says. "I sometimes feel like it's alive and thinking, always one step ahead." The insulated exterior walls are "like a thermos," she says, keeping heated air warm in winter and conditioned air cool in summer. Her energy-efficient windows "bring you the light but not the heat." To block the scorching Louisiana sun, jasmine and honeysuckle are starting to grow over a wooden trellis that spans her southern exterior wall. "It will give me shade and plenty of fresh oxygen," she explains. "Plus, it will look so pretty to have the leaves and flowers climbing around my windows."
The kitchen, she says, is her favorite room in the house, "because what I love doing the most is satisfying people's taste buds." Her signature dishes are a spicy creamed-corn casserole she calls Corn Porn and her gumbo—the latter is a favorite of Brad Pitt's, who often stops in for supper when he's visiting the Make It Right sites. "Melba never fails to make me smile," Pitt says. "I feel that kind of buoyancy from all the families in the neighborhood."
Leggett-Barnes moves to the living room, where family photographs crowd the wood bookshelves, and settles into a plush brown armchair. The burnt-orange walls glow with afternoon light. Through picture windows that reach from floor to ceiling, she can watch her granddaughters, Cheyenne and Yurrianne, skipping rope in the front yard. She might spot her neighbor Gertrude pruning her rose bush, or Mr. Green playing dominoes with a friend. "You can see the hummingbirds. You can see the butterflies," she says. "It is just so peaceful."
For Leggett-Barnes, it's about time. "The year of Katrina was the hardest of my life," she says. "My mother died, then my father died, then the hurricane wiped us out. Life was taking everything away from me. Now it's giving back. I have a house that gives back, making energy from the sun, cleaning the air, giving me light, making me healthy. This is relief after a long time hurting."
Home Eco-Nomics: 6 building blocks of an ultra-sustainable Make It Right residence