"We decided to invest in the architecture, and I think it was a great decision," says Bob, an attorney with the law firm of King, LeBlanc and Bland. "It turned out to be a wonderful house to live in on so many levels functionally, aesthetically, and in terms of construction and stability."
The Stefanis, who have two daughters, Ellie, 11, and Maddie, 9, set forth some preliminary guidelines for the house. They wanted it to be single-story, family friendly and energy efficient. They wanted a certain number of rooms, including a playroom for the girls and an office, and a floor plan conducive to comfortable, casual living.
"I wanted open spaces so you can have people together and you don't feel like you're on top of each other," says Laura. "I didn't want a lot of little rooms you don't use. And we don't do fussy, formal dining room so we didn't need one." Laura also dreamed of a trellis lush with flowers spilling over the outside of the house like one in a magazine picture she showed to McNaughton. Beyond those parameters, the couple gave him free reign to exercise his artistry. A professor of architecture at Tulane University, he is currently best known for his affordable house designs and ecological architecture, like that found at the Louisiana Nature Center and the more recent First Baptist Church of New Orleans, cited last year in New Orleans Magazine's "Best New Architecture" survey.
He enthusiastically agreed to work with the Stefanis' partly because he had designed the house of Laura's parents, John and Lil Uhl, and because of the relationship of the two houses, which are next door to one another. Presented with the Stefanis' broad strokes, McNaughton in turn approached the project with a construct of concepts that married to beautiful effect. One of the main ideas was that there be a separation of the living, or public, areas and the sleeping, or private, areas. Another was that there be an integration of indoor and outdoor spaces, good cross-ventilation to facilitate the interchange between the two, and plenty of natural light. The first idea, coupled with the trapezoidal shape of the lot where the house would be built, gave rise to the unusual shape of the house, which is really two separate structures -- a square and a rectangle -- joined by a link between them. The second resulted in the use of lots of windows and doors and the placement of a trellis, which filters the light, on three sides of the house. But perhaps the most interesting of the concepts McNaughton put to use is that of a house that reveals itself slowly. Though not yet hidden from the street, the house eventually will be surrounded by a cedar fence like the one around the Uhl's property next door, a treatment that also creates continuity between the two houses.
Once inside the fence, the trellis and walkway form an outdoor foyer leading to the front door, which enters the broad expanse of the communal spaces. A glass breezeway provides a transition to the bedrooms. The overall effect of discovering the house in stages is one of privacy and serenity. To the right of the entrance is a great room delineated into three separate areas by the placement of the furniture. To the left are an office and a powder room at the front of the house, the kitchen and laundry room at the rear. At the far end of the living areas is a breezeway that leads to a playroom, the two girls' rooms with a bathroom in between, and finally the master suite.
As the Stefanis had mandated, the use of concrete was a major factor in the design of the house, a fortuitous path considering the damage caused in the area by hurricane Katrina. The perimeter walls were formed using Eco Block, a system of hollow, Styrofoam forms that are connected like Legos and filled with concrete, then finished with the desired exterior treatment such as stucco or brick.
"It's the wave of the future," says Laura who learned of the technique, widely used in Europe and Canada, from her father. "Its very strong, energy efficient, termite resistant, and it's very quiet." McNaughton was resourceful with concrete inside the house as well, using it for the floors -- stained a glossy, coppery brown -- for the rough-hewn fireplace and a quartet of columns, which provide a framework for a sort of passageway leading to the living spaces and a skylight carved out of the sloped roof. The finer points of the architect's clean-lined, contemporary style can be seen inside and outside the house in the repetition of shapes and surface materials. Both the front door and trellis, for example, are comprised of wooden grids that cast similar patterns of light at various times of the day, while Formica countertops and streamlined cabinetry are found throughout. In keeping with McNaughton's minimalist hand, Laura had the walls, trim, and ceilings, painted antique white and used the same hardware pulls in every room that had cabinetry. She then furnished the house with a well-edited mix of pieces, including antiques found in the Charleston, S.C., and Washington, D.C. areas, where the family lived before moving back to Laura's native city, and both old and new pieces purchased from a wide variety of local stores and dealers. Even the kitchen, the sleekest of all the rooms, clearly references mid-century modern design with a built-in dining table and tiled backsplash, effectively mixing old and new. In the center of the room is a rustic, chopping-block table; around the kitchen table are retro "T" chairs from West Elm catalog.
Because they wanted their dream house to be a lifetime home, the Stefanis opted for the best quality they could afford when picking out features like windows, a prominent part of the house's form and function. The Pella windows they chose have gas between the panes that provides UV protection and a built-in shade that can be lowered behind the glass. Because they used concrete supplied by Laura's family business, Carlo Ditta Inc., they knew they could rely on the knowledge and expertise that came with the product. "Since we were doing so much with concrete, there were people at the plant interested in seeing that it got done correctly," says Bob.
The final phase of the house's completion will be the landscaping, an integral part of its design because of its emphasis on its environs and its connection to the Uhl's home. For privacy purposes, the living area has a southern exposure overlooking a green space, which essentially connects it to the rear of the Uhl's house. The two families can actually see each other across the lawn, and Laura's mother often waves when working at her desk.
"I really think the house will come alive with the landscaping," says Laura. "Eean (McNaughton) thinks it's just as important. It's really half of the house. My parents' house has aged so well over the years, it's prettier now that the plants have matured than it was before."
In the meantime, the Stefanis are more than happy with their home. "I love it," says Bob. "Everything about it is so functional and easy. It has a very open feel to it and it always looks clean, and everything is in a place that's well thought out from where the dishwasher is to taking out the garbage."