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Small Designer Homes on Odd Lots Offers New Model For Urban Development

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A traditional gateway to homeownership, the starter homes of the past offered a simple, mass-produced route to owning property. But in challenging urban markets such as New Orleans, with rising housing prices and a lack of undeveloped land, simple, straightforward and affordable housing can be in short supply, especially for first-time owners. A new infill concept by a local architect seeks to find a solution to this big problem with a series of singular, small homes.

The Starter Home concept devised by architect Jonathan Tate, his boutique design firm, and developer Charles Rutledge, offers a modern riff on the old model of cookie-cutter designs and tract housing. By building on tiny, often overlooked city lots, their program seeks to use the challenge presented by unorthodox sites as an inspiration to design unique, affordable, and modern urban housing. With one home completed and dozens on the way, Tate and his team are attempting to solve a host of urban housing woes using undeveloped real estate hidden in plain sight.

"We can do high design and speculative development at the same time," Tate says. "And we can right-size the home, and provide more availability"

Tate is quick to say this concept isn't a tiny house; it's more about utilizing space. The team spent six months identifying and purchasing odd lots around New Orleans, finding parcels in the right neighborhood and negotiating with owners. With the program predicated on individualized design, the task of drawing up blueprints for each lot might seem like the a challenge. But according to Tate, acquiring property was the difficult part.

"It worked because we're trying to be subversive," Tate says. "We're sneaking in where other developers, who have a fixed model, won't work. We're architects, so we can design an entire new home for every lot."

The first lot developed as part of this project, 3106 Saint Thomas Street, offered Tate and his team a bit of a spatial puzzle. A 16.5-by-55 foot space located in a historic district, it limited scale and massing, so the resulting home acquired a steeper profile during the design phase. With an angular, contemporary profile that stands out from the warehouses and homes on the surrounding block in the Irish Channel neighborhood, the new two-story house, currently asking $375,000, offers 975 square feet of living space sandwiched between a family home and warehouse.

"We weren't trying to replicate an historic form," says Tate, "But the zig-zags are meant to riff on the traditional form of a Creole cottage, like the one next door.

After finishing their first design late last year, the Starter Home team has roughly 20 homes in the works, including one at 4514 South Saratoga, a dozen blocks east of Tulane University. Boasting unorthodox dimensions (such as 35x30 and 20x60 foot lots), each site will offer its own unique look. Tate hopes the abnormal homes provide options for specific types of buyers who haven't been able to find a home that fits their need, budget and lifestyle.

"We have an agenda, and this was an opportunity to push an agenda," he says. "There's a gap in the system, and I think this is a way for us to address that. Whether it's Austin, Chicago or Cambridge, there's a need for this kind of housing, and in New Orleans, the odd lot made the most sense. It's very site specific. We didn't set out to be developers, but this opportunity presented itself."

· New Orleans is About to Get More Tiny Houses [Curbed New Orleans]