Office of Jonathan Tate brings micro-dwellings to the South.
Whether it’s micro apartments in Denver, prefabricated units in New York City or the grandfathering of previously illegal structures across LA, rampant urban development over the last decade has forced architects, politicians, and city-dwellers alike to pursue unorthodox gentrification-fighting strategies. Office of Jonathan Tate, a small New Orleans-based architecture firm, recently entered this raging debate with their Starter Home* project, an innovative land speculation and housing experiment that is quietly redefining the notion of affordable market rate housing for a major city.
The Starter Home* project utilizes extensive land analysis and geographic information system (GIS) mapping to articulate a potential architectural avenue for providing market-based affordability (as opposed to subsidized affordability) for modest single family homes by developing nonconforming lots in the city’s quickly gentrifying urban center. Architect Jonathan Tate describes the impetus for the project, “After witnessing the discouragement from many of our friends and colleagues over the woes of the housing market, we immediately understood a need to create new, thoughtfully designed homes that matched the way we live today but were embedded in the historic neighborhoods for which our city is known.”
Tate, his team of tenacious upstarts, and local developer Charles Rutledge scoured the city for every irregular scrap of land they could trace the ownership back to, categorizing these fallow parcels into a recognizable taxonomic system. The designers, after cross-referencing the physical characteristics of these lots with the city’s myriad building and historic preservation codes, generated a menagerie of breezy, contemporary dwellings. The homes are designed with natural ventilation, building performance, and sustainability in mind. This formula results in a collection of structures that abstractly draws upon New Orleans’ vernacular influences while effectively increasing density in targeted neighborhoods through the development of previously discarded lots. Tate tells The Creators Project, “We recognized a hole in the market: new, contemporary speculative homes amidst the historic neighborhoods that are tailored to the entry-level market. We also believed there was a way to think through this problem, resulting in a new model that challenges normative development practices.”
The firm recently wrapped up construction on their St. Thomas house, a 978 square foot corrugated metal chalet in the city’s Irish Channel neighborhood that is currently on the market for $375,000. The design for the home is principally driven by the tight physical restrictions of the 16 ½' by 55' lot and its associated 40' height limit. The resulting buildable footprint was reduced to 10 1/2' wide by 45' deep after setbacks, resulting in the 473 square foot footprint that delineates the ground floor of the home. The one bedroom and one-and-a-half bathrooms of the house are stacked above a ground floor kitchen and living room, producing a three-story structure that rises in height as it gets further from the street.
The lot’s narrow side yard is filled in by a raised deck and contains the home’s primary entry, providing access to the backyard. This narrow and tall structure is topped by a triangulated roof plane designed to be read at the street as a low, one-story shed, even as the back portion of the structure climbs much higher. Such a tall and slender home, because of the violent and powerful nature of the region’s weather, had to be braced with an interior vertical steel truss to resist hurricane gusts. This truss, exposed along the interior rooms of the house, acts as a sculptural and didactic element throughout the home.
For the designers, the Starter Home* strategy offers a unique advantage: the ability to cheaply acquire land in otherwise expensive neighborhoods. Because OJT controls so many facets of the design and construction process, they have more say than usual in determining the eventual cost per square foot of each custom home. Further, the firm expects to roll over profits from their initial prototype into still-in-development schemes, further reducing their cost in the long run.
Tate says, “Using the return from this first home, helping to recoup some of our initial development cost, we’re moving on to a dozen or so new units throughout New Orleans. We’re also in discussion with development groups in other cities about implementation of our program there as well.”