A new look

A new look

South Louisiana home buyers are starting the search for a contemporary alternative to ubiquitous country French.

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Contemporary architecture means different things to different people.

For Sam Herpin of Remson|Haley|Herpin Architects, the term in 2012 suggests, in a word, simplicity. Not plain, exactly, but an absence of adornments such as crown moulding, detailed casings and trim, features embraced by the more ornate Hays Town-inspired pseudo-Acadian style that dominates Baton Rouge.

Although built in the 1970s, Herpin's Skipper Post-designed “contemporary ranch” style house shares many features with the modern contemporary home, although it has a more pronounced roofline than most homes considered contemporary today. Occasionally, a client interested in a home with contemporary design will approach his firm, but not often.

“Actually, a lot of our peers are starting to do some contemporary,” Herpin says.

And in fact, some of those peers who specialize in contemporary architecture say they've experienced an uptick in interest from the public. While it might be an overstatement to suggest there's a huge trend toward contemporary design—there isn't really all that much residential construction happening right now, contemporary or otherwise—some professionals are detecting a little movement in that direction.

“People are starting to come to us for contemporary, because they know that we do more of it,” says Dwayne Carruth, an architect with Front Door Design Studio. “And we're slammed busy because of it.”

Part of what Carruth is experiencing may be a reaction against the common country French style, which often features steeply pitched roofs, casement windows and segmented arches, that Realtor Jerry del Rio says is falling out of fashion.

“It's kind of been this big trend,” she says. “The only people who really seem to be interested [in country French] are people who are history buffs and really appreciate what Hays Town did. Right now, it's more of that kind of West Caribbean, almost contemporary look. Not too contemporary, but a cleaner look.”

Del Rio thinks more residential builders would be going in that direction, if they were actually building. But she says financing remains tight, so buyers looking for a new house that's a little outside the country French norm may become frustrated.

“A lot of our clients tell us, ‘Enough's enough,'” says Fritz Embaugh of Plus One Design and Construction. “They're looking for something else other than what Baton Rouge has to offer.”

“Sustainability” has become a popular buzzword in recent years. But sustainable design doesn't have to mean installing solar panels or pursuing LEED certification.

“We were sustainable before sustainable was cool,” Embaugh says. “These are things that have been developed in our culture for hundreds of years. Developers and mass construction came along, and they ignored these [principles].”

Embaugh says deep overhangs and careful window placement can help keep the heat out of the house in the summer when the sun is high, while still taking advantage of the sun's rays in the winter, allowing the owners to run their heating and air conditioning systems less often. A skylight window, built to let in natural light, can create a “solar chimney” effect if designed properly, drawing warm air up and out of the house.

In a similar vein, people are rethinking the relationship between outside and inside: as Herpin puts it, “bringing the outdoors indoors” with lots of glass, trading privacy for openness. Outdoor spaces that seem to flow seamlessly from the indoors are popular.

Fans of contemporary architecture sometimes say that simple, clean design, without the ornate wall fixtures, draws attention away from the walls themselves and toward what's happening between those walls. Monochrome, a contemporary furniture store and a joint venture launched by Carruth, designer Carol LaCour and industrial designer Mitchell Naquin, opened in 2010.

“We sell probably as much furniture to older clients as we do to younger clients,” Carruth says. “It's that middle group that doesn't really do it, which is bizarre to me.”

People who are older than 55 are probably more well-traveled and worldly, and tired of what they've had in the past, he reasons, while people younger than 35 perhaps don't “want their grandma's stuff,” he says.

“There's definitely a shift in the market,” Carruth says. “People are tired of fleurs-de-lis and overblown [design] and frilly trims on their curtains and all that crap.”

For the most part, Baton Rouge remains a traditional market, Carruth says. He says contemporary features popular in a neighborhood such as Old Goodwood, where there are no design restrictions, might get a Santa Maria homeowner tarred and feathered. He says urban and suburban clients often have divergent tastes in design; someone who chooses to live in Santa Maria might be more enamored with tradition than someone in Willow Grove.

Carruth finds that, with his customers, contemporary hardware outsells more traditional stuff by about a 2-to-1 ratio. With hardware, people can add a few contemporary touches to their kitchen or bathroom, without feeling like they're changing their whole lifestyle, he explains.

Proponents of contemporary architecture say that, with so few homes fitting that description in this market, they tend to sell quickly when available. But some of those proponents say modern architecture carries a stigma with some lenders and appraisers, who aren't convinced such homes will hold their value over the long term.

Brian Falgoust, a regional representative with the Louisiana Chapter of the Appraisal Institute, says conformity is a principle often applied in real estate.

“If something is non-conforming, there may be some market resistance,” he says. “In south Louisiana, everything kind of fits into a mold, as opposed to some of the larger urban areas, where you see more variety of architectural styles.”

Embaugh says he met with several banks and mortgage companies, who all said they were more than willing to lend money for contemporary homes until Embaugh showed them what he meant by contemporary.

“There's a dance that they do,” he says. “The banks blame the appraisers, the appraisers blame the banks, somebody else blames Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

But Embaugh says some lenders—he mentions Campus Federal Credit Union—have stepped up to fund such loans internally, allowing his clients to build homes that stand out from the crowd.

“There is a lack of appreciation for the market's ability to grasp something,” Carruth says. “They don't give our buyer enough credit.”

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