Byron Mouton, AIA, never intended to stay in his hometown of New Orleans. He left for graduate school at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., then worked in Europe for a couple of years. On his way to San Francisco for a job interview in 1997, he stopped to see his family in the Crescent City and stayed for good. He started teaching at the architecture school at Tulane, his undergraduate alma mater, and eventually opened his own small studio, called bildDESIGN. For years he had trouble finding many clients who desired the modern, progressive houses he envisioned, but not anymore. “Many recent building types that we relied on [before Hurricane Katrina] didn't work so well,” he says. “People are more willing to do things differently.”
Now Mouton's challenge lies in keeping bildDESIGN's work affordable to its middle-class clients. “We're forced to have that mission because we don't have a large wealthy population here,” he says. He and his collaborators—Julie Charvat, Cordula Roser, Emilie Taylor, and Seth Welty—adapt traditional New Orleans house types such as the shotgun, the camelback, and the Creole cottage to current lifestyles and modern tastes. They keep the floor plans as efficient as possible and often use off-the-shelf materials to stretch clients' budgets. Limiting costs still poses difficulties, though, due to the high price of insurance, materials, and raising a home's first floor off the ground. “What used to cost just over $100 per square foot here now costs $150,” Mouton says. Good contractors are also expensive and elusive, but luckily his cousin, Tony Christiana, is a skilled local builder.
Along with his practice, Mouton acts as co-director of Tulane URBANbuild, which provides community design services to neighborhoods severely damaged by Katrina. He oversees the design/build portion of the program, in which Tulane students create and eventually construct a house in partnership with a nonprofit agency. The first URBANbuild house was stick-built last summer, and the second one—finished in May—consists of panelized steel. He and his students see the homes as prototypes for relatively affordable housing in New Orleans; at some point, they hope to make the plans widely available.