CRESCENT CITY: Populous and local design firm Nano designed parts of  Ernest N. Morial Convention Center’s improvements. (Courtesy venue)

Major upgrades to Morial Convention Center

Sustainability is a major focus at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which is about $110 million into a $557 million renovation project, according Michael Sawaya, convention center president since 2018, when he moved from the San Antonio (Texas) Convention Center.

In New Orleans, the 1.1 million-square-foot facility achieved LEED Gold certification in October, making it the world’s first convention center to to meet the the U.S. Green Building Council’s newest requirements for existing facilities. The new version of LEED certification, v4.1, raises standards for energy efficiency, water conservation, indoor air quality and waste reduction.

UNIQUE SETTING: The convention Center will undergo “immersive interventions.” (Courtesy venue)

Plans to achieve LEED Silver status were put into place in 2018 when Sawaya came aboard and hired Adam Straight as the convention center’s vice president of operations. Linda Baynham, the convention center’s director of sustainability and corporate social responsibility, led the effort.

The facility spent $20.6 million earlier this year on new lighting and air conditioning systems, 87 water bottle filling stations, low-flow fixtures in 37 sets of restrooms, expanded recycling and 200 trees in a new 7.5-acre pedestrian park with stormwater-capturing rain gardens.

Sawaya said he joined the convention center’s special “trash team” of leadership and staff in conducting a waste audit — sorting through trash — as part of LEED certification.

“I had to put on gloves and an apron and help determine what was in the right bins and what was recyclable and what was not, just kind of digging in there, up to our elbows,” he said. “Starting out it was a little rough, but those things became routine and habit.”

Customers and event attendees are expecting greener practices and appear ready to join such efforts, Sawaya said.

“Many are looking for that and to a large extent the expectation was that we were being responsible as far as sustainability is concerned,” he said. “Some were surprised at the advancements we’ve made since they booked their events. We’ve had overwhelming support from our clients.”

Michael Sawaya

As for the $557 million capital improvement program, Sawaya noted the budget was approved and the scope of work for general categories set in May of 2018.

Among the improvements done already are outdoor porches for indoor/outdoor events that have proven popular with users.

“The remaining amount is mostly what’s on board for 2023. It starts out with a replacement of our 40-acre roof,” he said.”That’s about a $48 million project. It will take about a year.”

Some areas of the roof will be fully replaced and others covered with a coating that should have a 25-year life, Sawaya said.

“That similar approach was done at Caesars Superdome and they’ve had great results,” he said. “Beyond that, 140 meeting rooms will be completely renovated. We are going to do ‘immersive interventions’ where we take our three quarters-of-a-mile-long building and cut into it to build new entryways and meeting rooms that are more modern. Those will probably be done in 2024.”

A 35,000-square-foot ballroom will be built with a view of two bridges than span the Mississippi River.

“That’s one thing nobody else can build because those bridges don’t exist anywhere else,” he said.

Populous did the conceptual design and local firm Nano is the architect of record for the meeting rooms and interventions.