Photo by Denny Culbert
Senior architecture students (from the left) Daniel Ferg, Jennifer Young, Abigail Comeau, Barrett Bertrand, Nicholas Clesi, and Liran Timiansky (not pictured) were the team responsible for designing the COURhouse, all under the oversight of one of the Building Institute’s directors, Geoff Gjertson (far right).
The COURhouse is the third house designed and built by ULL architecture students to help improve the prospects of flagging neighborhoods
Long, long ago, Confucius said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
Nicholas Clesi is contemporary proof that Confucius was wise beyond his time.
Clesi will earn his undergraduate degree in architecture this month, but thanks to the University of Louisiana-Lafayette’s (ULL) Building Institute program, Clesi’s education has moved far beyond the theoretical detachment often associated with academia. Instead, he’s had the opportunity to nurture a deeper understanding of his chosen profession in his position as the lead architect of a building project—and not just any building project.
Clesi worked with five other senior ULL architecture students to lead the design, planning, and building of the COURhouse, the Building Institute’s latest project at 324 Jackson Street in Lafayette.
“Nick understands project delivery now,” said Geoff Gjertson, AIA, associate professor and a director of the Building Institute.
The Building Institute strives to regenerate communities around Lafayette by building affordable, sustainable homes on empty lots within neighborhoods. The projects are a joint effort between the ULL Building Institute, Ragin Cajun Facilities, and the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority.
For Clesi and his classmate Daniel Ferg, the 1,500-square-foot COURhouse was a yearlong project. The home is deliberately small.
“People just don’t need as much space,” Gjertson said—especially if that space is well-planned. Along with senior architect students Barrett Bertrand, Abigail Comeau, Liran Timianski, and Jennifer Young, Clesi and Ferg began with a design studio in the fall. Clesi was elected to lead his team of peers—a daunting challenge for anyone.
“I learned about how to work with contractors, sub-contractors, and my peers,” Clesi said. After a semester of planning, Clesi and Ferg worked on their own to estimate costs; coordinate with contractors; and organize, file, and complete all construction documents through the spring semester. Then twenty-five students worked throughout the summer on the actual building of the home, in conjunction with J.C. Dugas Construction Associates, Inc.
“They’re very proud,” Gjertson said. “It’s their baby. They wanted to see it through to the end.”
The detail in the project is proof of the thoughtful consideration, planning, and execution. “Traditionally, architects did the construction,” Gjertson said. “Beginning in the twentieth century, the builder was separated from the architect, and the trilogy of the builder, architect, and owner process that we are accustomed to today began. For this project, working with other builders and qualified contractors makes the most sense. Not only does it expedite the process, but it gives students the opportunity to work with contractors.”
Clesi said when some of the project came in over budget, they had to go back to the drawing tables and do some value engineering.
“We ended up making some of the spaces better because of the lower budget—that was another great lesson,” Clesi said.
The Building Institute’s first project, the award-winning BeauSoleil House, was completed in 2009 and is now permanently installed on the ULL campus. The BeauSoleil was designed and built as a hybrid house, focusing on the culture and lifestyle of South Louisiana and combining traditional, local design concepts with the latest innovations in energy efficiency and solar technology. Its popularity paved the way for more sustainable buildings and caught the attention of the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority (LPTFA), a public trust that was created for the purpose of improving and establishing public functions to benefit citizens of the city of Lafayette.
“After the BeauSoleil House, the LPTFA board wanted to look at doing more sustainable houses in areas near and around downtown with the Building Institute,” said Rebekke Miller, program coordinator for LPTFA. “We created a $400,000 revolving loan fund with the ULL Building Institute. We would loan them the money to buy the land and build the house; and when the project is sold, we pay back the money.”
Miller said that working with the students has been an added benefit.
“The students are really so excited about these projects,” she said. “They’re very conscientious about everything they do. It’s fun working with that department. They go so far beyond what’s expected.”
The COURhouse followed two earlier projects—the Next House, also on Jackson Street, and the Event House on Madison Street.
The partnership between the Building Institute and LPTFA has created a win-win-win situation. Not only are ULL architecture students getting invaluable hands-on experience, but the projects are helping to revitalize entire neighborhoods with well-designed, energy-efficient homes. “There are absolutely fantastic benefits for this community,” Miller said. “The Building Institute is buying lots in older neighborhoods for redevelopment. They’re building owner-occupied homes. The gentrification process is happening.”
The COURhouse and the Next House are nearly across the street from each other. Clesi worked on the Next House before he helped lead the COURhouse project.
“From the time I started working on the Next House and the time we completed the COURhouse, I noticed a change on Jackson Street,” Clesi said. “The neighbors are painting and cleaning up. The street has a different feel. You can see a big difference in the neighborhood.” But of everyone involved in the project, no one is more pleased than the COURhouse’s new owner, Elizabeth Brooks.
“It is literally my dream house. I mean it. I have dreamed of this house long before the designers even entered college,” Elizabeth Brooks said, as she pulled an old notebook out to show sketches she made back in 2004 of a house she hoped to own some day. Her sketches are amazingly similar to the home she now calls her own—down to its basic shape, the placement of the solar panels, and types of windows.
The COURhouse name comes from the home’s prominent feature, a centralized courtyard connecting the living room and kitchen to the outdoors, offering a sense of openness and spaciousness. The courtyard is accessible through a large glass roll-up door from the kitchen, two sliding glass doors from the living room, and French doors from the master bedroom.
As much as possible, the home’s building materials are reclaimed. For example, the front porch is wrapped in reclaimed cypress from an Arnaudville home built in the 1800s and donated by Jeff Simeral.
“We believe the building materials we used may open people’s eyes to using reclaimed materials,” Clesi said. “From an aesthetic point and lifecycle, it’s much better to use recycled materials. They’re able to tie the new construction into the neighborhood more easily.” Gjertson believes the homes’ designs show respect to the past and to the region’s historical cultures.
“The two homes—the Next House and the COURhouse—are creating a critical mass that is making a difference on Jackson Street,” Gjertson said. “The homes open people’s eyes to a more modern, contemporary aesthetic. Everyone seems to be comfortable with them. They fit in. They have porches, overhangs, pitched roofs. If you squint your eyes, they look the same, but when you get closer, you see the difference.”
Brooks agrees that the house fits the neighborhood and her lifestyle.
“I feel like I manifested this house,” she said.
Brooks is the new director of planning and design for The Park at the Horse Farm. She is also one of the co-founders and organizers of the community driven “Save the Horse Farm” campaign. She heard about the COURhouse the day before the public was invited to tour, two days before the bidding opened. Her father happens to be the dean of the College of the Arts at ULL, which includes the architecture department.
“My dad and I don’t talk shop much. I didn’t even know this house was being built, but I walked in it and knew it was built for me. They didn’t know it, but I knew it,” she said. The next morning, she made an offer, and her offer was accepted. Bidding started at $190,000 for the three-bedroom, two-bathroom home in the Freetown area of Lafayette.
Miller said the price is in line with what the market is willing to bear.
“The COURhouse was at $190,000. The Next House sold for $172 [thousand],” Miller said. “When you see the interior of the house and see how it’s built, I don’t think anyone would think it’s overpriced.”
More than two hundred people walked through the COURhouse’s open house in February.
“I even had someone come in on the Tuesday afterwards willing to pay $200,000 cash. He loved the area so much and could see the potential. I think there’s a big demand for this kind of house,” Miller said. “The trend of moving to the suburbs reversed. So many people now want to move toward the downtown area. That’s happening in Lafayette as well—closer to where they work and where the activities are.”
Unfortunately, the Building Institute’s next residential project is at least a couple of years away. Even though momentum is on the upswing for the smaller, sustainable homes, Gjertson is committed to other projects. However, with the increased demand and interest, nothing is stopping other architects and builders from drawing inspiration from the Building Institute’s success to create more energy-efficient, sustainable—even smaller—designs for homes.