When Fran and Marty Lessans decided to build a house in Uptown New Orleans, with their daughter Stephanie Adler of Adler Design Build as architect, the couple discussed the idea of an arts and crafts style residence. But Stephanie, who initially resisted the idea of designing a new house for her parents at all, convinced them to let her do something unique.
“I wanted to build a house around the concept of retaining and using water on site,” said Adler, who won the International Interior Design Association’s (IIDA) 2019 Award of Recognition for a Residential Design.
It took four years from the purchase of the Lessans’ Uptown lot to moving in, but what the Lessans got is unlike anything they could have imagined. Among its most notable features are: subterranean water containment that enables water to be reused for fountains and irrigation, rain chains (which divert water and make music), deep overhangs for shade and protection from wind and water, French doors and clerestory windows for natural light, hidden doors, a smart house system, a geothermal heat/pump system, a whole house generator, solar panels, a zinc roof, an outside shower, sliding aluminum shutters and handicap accessibility that allows aging in place.
“There are no precedents in New Orleans for this type of design,” said Adler, who researched sustainable architecture in South America for ideas.
In part, the Lessans’ wish list drove the design process. It included the main living on the first floor with an open concept conducive to entertaining, a connected two-car garage, a master area on one side/guest on the other, a large master bath, an outdoor shower, an office for both of the Lessans, warm woods and texture, a wood-burning pizza oven, pet-friendly features such as a doggie doors, and a pitched roof that would hide the use of solar panels.
“We wanted to make sure that it didn’t look like a spaceship had landed in New Orleans,” said Marty of the pitched roof.
“We didn’t want stark modern,” adds Fran. “This house has a lot of architectural detail.”
All of the Lessans’ requests made it into the finished structure, which Adler envisioned as modern. There are references to arts and crafts architecture found in details such as the master bedroom’s wood built-ins and coffered ceiling, as well as in the dark stained cypress wainscoting on the wall next to the stairs. Yet, Adler emphasizes that “the form followed the function” with sustainability being the main criteria for every design decision.
“The idea was to operate at net zero and provide as much energy as we use,” said Adler. “I tried to keep the house as low impact as possible with local everything and low maintenance materials throughout.”
The house is connected to the grid but typically, the monthly energy fee is minimal. Rainwater is used for the outdoor fountain and irrigation, the roof is made of zinc, which doesn’t add any heavy metals to the water, the outdoor garden is terraced for easy accessibility and watering.
“I did a lot of experimentation with rainwater run-off and storage and I’m super proud of how well it works,” said Adler. “I only wish I had been more extreme with my use and storage.”
At the entrance of the house is an interior tower that separates foyer and kitchen, houses foliage for clean air, and contains a wet bar, storage and appliances. The house’s modern interior also features built-in furniture, open sitelines, wide wheelchair accessible passages, operable glass walls which lead to a patio, hidden storage and locally and regionally sourced materials. The beams of the living room ceiling are made from downed cypress trees purchased in Poplarville, Mississippi. The floors are salvaged heart pine. Adler also worked with local artisans to create custom pieces such as the chandelier in the dining room by Abe Geasland and custom stair rail by Christian Van Campen of S&H Metalworks. Local painter Annmarie Aurrichio applied the American Clay walls, a natural plaster finish that absorbs sound and doesn’t give off polluting VOC’s (volatile organic compounds).
The finished house has elements of both Art and Crafts and Mid-century modern architecture combined with the convenience of state-of-the-art-technology.
“It’s the little crazy things I love,” said Marty. “I enjoy the button in the bedroom that turns out all the lights in the house except the bedroom for 15 seconds.
It’s her inspiration with our ideas of what we wanted. She took it way beyond where my vision was.”
“I like everything about it,” said Fran. “It’s been a joy to live in something my daughter did.”