Do-it-yourself done right

Young homeowners Ian and Amanda Smithson took a chance in post-Katrina New Orleans — and honed their home-building skills along the way.

Amanda and Ian Smithsons' home has a welcoming floor plan that's conducive to socializing. It was important for them to have a spacious kitchen because they both enjoy cooking and entertaining. The kitchen opens up to a side yard with a picnic table that's perfect for dining alfresco.

Photographed by Greg Miles

On a hot summer afternoon in the Riverbend, Amanda and Ian Smithson sip Coronas with limes on their side deck and contemplate what to make for dinner. Flowers in shades of hot pink, orange and yellow have blossomed in the well-kept yard, and two blue-eyed huskies, Jasper and Tchoupitoulas, occasionally brave the heat to greet their owners before retreating back to the air conditioning inside the home. For the most part, it’s a lazy, humid day, and a glimpse of this couple in the sunny yard offers a snapshot of domestic bliss.

The Smithsons’ home is a shining example of the positive outcomes that result both from the determination to take on a project and the faith that many people have in New Orleans, especially post-Katrina.

The Smithsons, who met as teenagers in Virginia, dated long-distance through college and lived in a multitude of places before settling in New Orleans, can finally sit back and reflect on the past few years.

In June 2005, they moved to New Orleans so Ian could attend medical school at Tulane University. Like many transplants, the couple was immediately charmed by the city –– just in time to be kicked out by Hurricane Katrina.

While Ian studied at the interim medical school that Tulane established in Houston for the 2005-06 school year, Amanda stayed in New Orleans to work as the associate director for the New Orleans field office of Save the Children.

It wasn’t their first time being apart from each other, but it motivated them to return to New Orleans to establish some permanency.

When Ian finished his first year “abroad” in Houston, “we were excited to both live here again,” Amanda says. “We got the idea to join the [rebuilding wave] and buy a property.” Ian adds, “We’ve always wanted to do something like this, and post-Katrina New Orleans gave us the push.”

It was important for the couple to live above the flood plain, and they found a house off Carrollton Avenue with a good foundation. It did, however, need a great deal of TLC, as it had been neglected for years even prior to Katrina. They knew it would take lots of laborious hours, so Ian requested a year’s leave of absence from school to build the house. “For reasons that escape me now, they granted me the leave,” he says, laughing.

The first phase they dealt with was the design: “We wanted to take a standard shotgun and rearrange it to increase its functionality a bit,” Ian says.
“We really wanted to keep the New Orleans look and feel to our home, even though we were building it to be more energy-efficient,” Amanda adds. “It had to be able to accommodate working, studying and gatherings for friends and family.” The design began as a sketch on a napkin but was eventually formalized with more elaborate computer software.

Because the original house on the lot had a large amount of mold and rot, they chose to demolish the majority of it, though they were able to salvage the front porch and much of the structure from the front 30 feet of the house, as well as some of the original doors.

To make the house more eco-friendly, they constructed it to allow for R19 insulation. They also used energy-efficient windows and doors, foam insulation on the floors and attic, a radiant barrier and metal reflective roofing, a high-efficiency heat pump and an “on-demand” natural gas water heater.

Under the supervision of licensed contractors, the couple re-wired and re-plumbed the house. “We milled our own trim and built additional doors to match the doors we salvaged from the original house,” Ian says proudly.

Amanda designed the kitchen space, and Ian fabricated the granite countertops. “I like to entertain, and it is a great space to gather,” he says of the kitchen, which is his favorite room.

During this time –– like so many other New Orleanians –– the Smithsons were, in Ian’s words, “temporary gypsies.” They housesat for their friends Emily and Tapash Palit for a month and then spent another month living in the guest room of Chris and Kendra Reade. Finally, their house was livable, so they began the final stretch in making it their masterpiece. “It helped that so many other New Orleanians were in the same boat those days,” says Ian. “We weren’t the only ones living in friends’ guest rooms.” The couple is thankful for the support they received: “We had friends who volunteered to help us frame, tile, hang windows and doors, put together cabinet boxes and more,” says Ian.

Today it is evident that the couple put in great thought and detail throughout the process. The one-level house features an open common kitchen and living area. Off the kitchen is the side porch –– the Smithsons knew it would be a necessity, as they frequently invite friends over to cook and grill for post-exam dinners, book clubs and neighborhood meetings. “We made the side deck and the living room directly off the kitchen to allow for the inevitable crowded kitchen overflow,” Amanda says. The front rooms are painted in welcoming shades of green, while the bedroom, which leads to the backyard, is painted light blue and features crisp white linens. The house also has two bathrooms, and one of Amanda’s favorite home accents is a glass window that Studio Inferno made for the master bathroom –– it depicts a New Orleans water meter in clear glass. “It was Ian’s idea, and I love it,” she says.

The rest of the décor in the home is elegant, modern and clean-looking (Amanda is a self-described neat freak; Ian agrees with her assessment), though the colors are bright and playful.

“We chose bright colors because it’s New Orleans,” Amanda says. “Why not?” Ian says, echoing his wife’s sentiments: “There are thousands of places in the U.S. to live in a gray house. Where else can you live in an orange house and fit right in? We love the flair and spirit of New Orleans.”

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