Southern Greens

Originally published in 

A change of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, neighborhood for Rick and Susan Moreland meant a chance to create a thoroughly modern house that owes its sleek, sustainable form to its vernacular roots.

Moreland Residence

We’re just back from a short, humid bike ride through Louisiana State University. Rick Moreland, the chair of the LSU English department, met me in Tiger Manor (a slapped-up apartment complex just off campus) with a pair of bicycles, and from there we rode back to his house in a quiet, leafy Baton Rouge neighborhood on the other end of the university lakes. We sip glasses of water as he takes a seat in the long, low window that looks from the kitchen out to the front yard. He’s perfectly framed by the glass expanse and the concrete countertop; his long legs look longer still in the rectangular space, and during a pause in our chat he lazily waves toward a passing car. Like clockwork, the driver waves back.

During my visit, Rick and his wife, Susan, who works for local nonprofit Cancer Services of Greater Baton Rouge, express a certain ambivalence toward Southern culture. “Neither of us is sentimental about the South. Susan’s Irish and I teach Faulkner,” Rick says. That little nod to a passerby though, one that seems less consciously neighborly than deeply ingrained, says volumes not just about Rick’s affable manner, but about how a home addresses its surroundings, and how a man addresses his neighbors. And though we’re not outdoors, the long-time Baton Rougean’s friendly gesture immediately reframes the spacious kitchen in those terms. Even when indoors, he’s out on the porch.

Southern homes have always been about indoor-outdoor living, about maximizing the climatic benefits of both. Porches, or at least porch-inspired spaces, abound at the Morelands’ home. Then again, much of this modern house—despite the ground floor’s open plan, the corrugated galvanized-aluminum cladding, and the grasping thatches of bamboo in the courtyard—has ineluctably Southern roots, legible traces of the local vernacular.

The patio just off the kitchen has a nice, if somewhat shaded, view of the street and is one of the couple’s favorite spots. The upstairs balcony faces the street as well, though from a height that interacts as much with the canopy of trees as anyone out mowing the lawn. The form of the house, too, owes more to regional design—think shotgun house and Charleston single houses—than anything Corbu came up with. One of the Morelands’ architectural designers, Michael Hughes, suggests that though the boxy structure itself is rather a stark aesthetic deviation from the others on the block, its bones are local: “We took those Southern inspirations like the shotgun house, passive cooling, and tall spaces and translated them into a modern aesthetic.”

The Morelands bought the lot where they eventually built the house in 2001, though they’d long been familiar with it. “It was used as a cut-through for walkers and runners (including us) between two established neighborhoods, and we were interested as soon as it went up for sale,” Rick says. They moved not only to build a new home but to take advantage of another part of town, one from which Rick often bikes to campus. “It was a neighborhood issue more than anything,” Susan says. “We loved this neighborhood and we’d often end up here anyway.”

“We moved here to shorten our runs, really,” Rick quips, quickly adding, “Once we started talking about moving I wanted a house different enough to make it worth it. We weren’t unhappy before, but to make this move we needed a bigger change than just the neighborhood.” Architectural help wasn’t far off.

Hughes taught architecture at LSU and practices with his wife, Selma Catovic Hughes, at Catovic Hughes Design. Rick and Susan asked around and the couple kept coming up. Soon they had the job.

But as the design neared construction, Hughes left for the University of Arkansas, and now teaches at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Though out of state, Hughes and Catovic Hughes still made several site visits during construction and relied on the Morelands to snap photos of the construction. Even without the architects’ in-person supervision, the house came out wonderfully, a modern two-story shotgun house that weighs in at 2,250 square feet and the palatable $128 per square foot. 

The team managed to bring the house in for so little in part because they opted to pay for the form itself as opposed to flashy materials. “We talk to clients about investing in the bones of the building—double-height spaces or spaces that feel gracious,” Hughes says. “You won’t see a lot of granite counters or marble thresholds. The Morelands got a nice, simple $120 toilet and tile for $5 per square foot. We try to have decent materials everywhere, without relying on really expensive finishes.”

Concrete countertops, Ikea furniture, the discounted fruits of a neighbor’s yard sale, and a rather unprecious take on furnishings—“Most things we have didn’t come from the old house. I don’t think we’re very sentimental people,” Susan says—kept the rest of the interior on budget.

Another vital element that helped keep costs down is the landscaping: Rick and Susan did it themselves. Little they’ve added—three types of bamboo, a trio of Japanese maples—can compete with the century-old live oak that dominates the front yard, though. The bamboo is the most prominent foliage in the courtyard, a pecan tree holds court in the backyard, and as a nod to the layout of the house and the lot’s previous life as a shortcut, a slim corridor runs down one side of the yard for public use. And for those dreadfully sultry days when you won’t find the Morelands outdoors, they take it all in from their glassed-in living room.

“My favorite spot in the house and, actually, where I do more work than in the study upstairs, is the brown leather chair in the living room,” Rick says. “When I was at Harvard I studied in the design building because it had some of the best views.”

From that lounger he surveys the yard through the two glass walls on either side and the street from the front window. The living room is easily the most exposed spot in the house, and though Rick expresses slight trepidation at being so visible (Susan doesn’t really mind, she says), he freely grants that the benefits of all that light, sunshine, and the views outstrip the demerits of the expansive glass. “In our previous house we spent most of our time in the room with the most windows—it wasn’t the biggest room, but it felt like it. Here, we look outside from almost any room in the house, and that does mean we care more and do more to make the landscape worth watching.”

By opening the front and back doors downstairs, the door to the balcony in the office, and the windows in the master bedroom, the Morelands create two airflow corridors in a kind of double-decker shotgun arrangement. Open the glass doors into the courtyard and you’ve got a house in swampy Baton Rouge that relies on air-conditioning for only a few months of the year.

“The truth is, we really don’t mind the heat,” says Rick, as we sit stand in the kitchen, sipping from our glasses of water. “I love being outside, and this house really encourages that.” Just the kind of sentiment any Southerner—tentative or otherwise—might agree with.

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