A local architect takes a refreshing approach to channeling the outdoors
For Nathan Fell, founder and principle of Nathan Fell Architecture, long and narrow site constraints — those typical of New Orleans — informed a unique solution when designing his personal home in Mid-City. He decided to create space below the second story of the home, effectively situating a heated pool and hot tub alongside the main living area, kitchen and dining room. Expansive sliding-glass panels serve the dual function of delineating and integrating the indoor and outdoor spaces, allowing for versatile and functional living.
“Being outside on most New Orleans summer days only seems bearable if there is shade and a breeze — also a pool helps,” Fell says. “The project augments a small backyard that would otherwise be underutilized, so that three-fourths of the outdoor space is shaded.”
Fell, who originally is from South Carolina, moved to New Orleans in 2010, after spending one too many winters in Chicago. Late last year, he opened his eponymous architectural firm, with a focus on residential and smaller commercial projects. “It is gratifying to design projects that are built soon after they are conceived,” he says. “Large-scale projects, on the other hand, have other virtues. They tend to value innovation, durability and wellness a bit more. It is my intention to apply these values to smaller projects as well.”
Describing his design aesthetic as “humanistic modernism,” Fell likes to condense and edit the qualities of a space in order to make it more hospitable. “An uncluttered space is visually transformed by its occupants, so they are the primary focus,” he says. “By embracing and understanding the virtues of modern building materials and construction techniques, a warm, inviting and livable architecture is feasible.”
Indeed, a more traditional approach to architecture would be to encase the first floor space as interior square footage, while allowing for only a small slit of backyard. Fell instead decided to turn the outside in with this duplex project that he designed on nights and weekends, and completed last July.
He and his wife, Danielle, and their two children, Roscoe,11, and Donovan, 6, occupy the 4-bedroom, 3.5-bath rear unit, and they rent out the 3-bedroom, 2.5-bath front unit. While each unit features a separate roof deck with great views of downtown, Fell as his family use their primary indoor and outdoor living space for everything from reading, cooking and eating to swimming, playing games, watching the Saints (maybe from the pool or hot tub) and socializing.
“The outdoor space feels secluded, shaded, breezy and relaxing,” Fell says. “We love to be outside — it’s great for psychological wellness — but no one wants to go outside when it feels like you’re melting.”
To take advantage of wind within the space, Fell designed a large opening by the hot tub that allows ample cross-ventilation. He also added six 62-inch Minka Aire ceiling fans for days without a breeze.
Yet his Mid-City abode posed a challenge: determining how to build the load-bearing wall on top of the above-ground pool. Gunite — a material much stronger than standard concrete — formed the foundation, but it also had to be reinforced to support the concrete-bearing wall and the second floor. The placement of the wall, however, also had to take into account the wall finishes.
“[The gunite] was formed prior to the bearing wall on top but needed to be slightly inset from the face of the concrete wall so the plaster and tile would not protrude,” Fell says. “Fortunately, strength wasn’t an issue, but the plumbing and lighting for the pool all had to be worked out beforehand.”
Building materials certainly take center stage with wood slat-formed concrete walls, interior concrete floors, exterior concrete tiles, ipe wood decking, clear-stained walnut cabinetry and black granite countertops.
The colorful interior design further highlights the home’s beautiful bones. “I think it’s good to use a saturated color wherever something is dyed, such as a fabric or a molded plastic chair,” Fell says. “It helps to draw vibrancy into a space and distinguish the more natural materials.”
For example, Fell sourced two blue Split Rail chairs with arms from Modernica to pair with a custom pink sofa from Joybird to add pops of color to the living space. “When my wife and I saw the bubble gum pink, it was like the other colors didn’t even exist,” he says. “[The kitchen stools] are available in a multitude of colors, and, because there are six of them, the different colors help to accentuate the beauty of their form so they didn’t seem like a wall of chairs.”
The dining table, a Seno extendable walnut table from Article, and the Gage Dining Chair Collection from Arhaus define a separate dining area. And while Fell considers his home almost perfect as is, he and his wife would like to add a few more rows of planters with bamboo to aid with privacy.
“We are drawn to New Orleans because of its beauty, walkable neighborhoods and culture,” Fell says. “It is unique for an American city to have so many courtyards and lush gardens immersed in an urban context.”