Big Unit with a Small Footprint

Wisznia | Architecture + Development brings a creative approach to adaptive reuse in New Orleans.

Marcel Wisznia is a bit of a trouble maker. The president of Wisznia | Architecture + Development will readily admit it. Going against the grain comes naturally. Pioneering is in his blood. His father, the late Walter Wisznia, built the first condominiums in the state of Texas in 1961. Fast-forward 50 years later and Marcel Wisznia is bringing fundamental change to the New Orleans rental market, all while preserving some of the city’s most historic buildings.

Marcel Wisznia founded his practice in The Big Easy after graduating from Tulane in 1973 because he didn’t want to move back to Corpus Christi, Texas and “be the boss’s son,” as he puts it. In the mid-80s, the two Wisznias merged, and found success operating two practices in two different profit centers. They primarily did design work for clients developing commercial space. All was going well until the early 2000s when Marcel got bored.

“I just got to a point where I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. I got tired of it—tired of the politics,” Wisznia says. “I sat back and realized what part was really enjoyable to me, which was real estate development.”

Walter Wisznia passed away in 2004, and Marcel decided to shift the firm’s work to 80 percent in-house development. Wisznia kept a few clients, but told the rest he didn’t want to work for them anymore. Initially, there was no plan to build apartments in New Orleans. Wisznia felt there were other markets where he could get a better return. At the time it was true, but that all changed with Hurricane Katrina. The disaster created a void in development and concentrated the city. New residential markets emerged, and Wisznia took action, deciding that it “was time to be a part of the recovery—not to wait back for someone else to jump-start it, but to literally be a leader.”

The developer in Wisznia saw a landscape of historic buildings ripe for residential overhaul. The architect saw a unique opportunity to create modern habitats that catered to the young entrepreneurs that would breathe life back into the city. His visionary spirit and technical skills put him in a position to develop something truly great.

“The architect as real estate developer has some added value. One and one equals three, so to speak,” Wisznia asserts, adding that the greatest benefit comes from having a client, i.e. his own firm, that is already educated. “This allowed us to decide and focus where to best spend those construction dollars, and good design came to the forefront as a result.”

Making the most of existing space

Wisznia | Architecture + Development’s first residential adaptive reuse project in New Orleans was Union Lofts, a 33-unit luxury apartment community built in the historic Western Union telegraph building. While drawing up floor plans, Wisznia confronted the balancing act of creating a unit that was large enough to be comfortable, but small enough to be affordable.

“We felt the best way to attack the problem was to really manipulate the square footage, but to do so in a way that our residents didn’t feel like we were taking anything away from them,” he says.

Wisznia’s original “big unit with a small footprint” centered on a bedroom without walls. The project hit a speed bump when it became apparent that HUD would not provide as much financing with that design, which was technically a studio, not a one-bedroom.

“So I went back to HUD, and being a bit of a trouble maker, again, which is part of my personality, I asked them what it took to be a one-bedroom. And they said walls. So I asked, ‘what is a wall?’”

After going back and forth for a while, Wisznia was able to get HUD to agree that a wall could both move and fall a foot or two short of the ceiling. The resulting unit design bridged the gap between a studio and one-bedroom with fixed and sliding translucent polycarbonate panels. Moving bedroom walls are now a space-saving signature in every Wisznia development.

“What started out as a problem solver, almost our desire to beat the system, really became a design statement,” Wisznia says. “The feedback has been very positive. The renters like it. They like the fact that they are not being dictated to. They can choose how to live; they are in control.”

Wisznia’s next development in New Orleans was The Maritime, a 105-unit luxury community located in New Orleans’s first skyscraper, the 1893-built Hennen Building, which opened in early 2011. Creating a unit layout in a standing structure is never easy, but Wisznia advises to go with the flow and take advantage of the existing building.

“We believe that the building talks to us,” he says. “You don’t force something on it; you let it tell you how the units should be laid out.”

The Hennen Building’s column structure and bay windows steered designs toward a layout with 20 percent two-bedroom units, far less than Wisznia’s usual goal of 35 percent to 40 percent. Instead of struggling against the building, he conceded. Wisznia is happy with the choice, but notes that every two-bedroom in the 85 percent occupied property is leased.

About three blocks away is Wisznia’s newest development, The Saratoga, which opened its doors in mid-August. The building was originally built as an office in 1956. The property had been sitting vacant for 10 years on the edge of downtown, an area that was generally a bit ignored. Wisznia, always the pioneer, saw something else.

“Instead of looking back to the balance of downtown, we looked 180 degrees from that. And what did we see? Tulane University Medical Center and the beginning of the whole medical district, where two new hospitals were being planned,” Wisznia says.

The Saratoga hit the market in mid-August and had 42 signed leases as of mid-October, running steadily ahead of what the underwriters expected. One-bedroom units average 600 square feet, but thanks to an evolved translucent panel and smart design, the units feel much larger.

Little details make for bigger spaces

Wisznia has consistently decided that public areas, the living and dining rooms, should receive the immediate and natural light. The interior bedrooms get their “borrowed” light through the translucent panels, which, in the case of The Saratoga, are frosted glass with brushed aluminum frames. They are “much more refined, much more minimal” than the company’s first go at Union Lofts, says David Morris, who worked as project architect on both developments. Morris approached the problem of making a small space feel bigger by focusing on the details and a light color scheme. Gray minimalist tiles comprise the carpet. The windows have natural aluminum finishes, and the walls and frosted glass are white.

“So you get a whole lot of neutral and white from interior colors that really seem to make the space much bigger because they have a disappearing effect,” Morris says.

A modern design theme with a hint of throwback flare is certainly apparent in renderings of Wisznia’s next project, Stephen’s Garage, a to-be-converted Chevrolet dealership. The ground floor is reserved for retail. Each floor above that will have 20 units and 17 parking spaces. Two car elevators will let residents park in front of their units, even if it’s on the third floor. Wisznia’s staple separation of the bedroom and living space will still be present, though it is bit more tongue in cheek.

“In this case it is a translucent glass-and-aluminum garage door,” Wisznia says. “In the open position, it forms almost a canopy over the bed.”

Stephen’s Garage is not the only project in Wisznia’s pipeline. One of the firm’s most interesting ideas, the details of which are still confidential, is a project near the French Quarter that will be comprised of studio and one-bedroom units averaging just 320 square feet. The target demographic are people who had previously been shut out from urban living because they made too much money to qualify for subsidized housing.

“We are calling them ‘luxury affordable’,” Wisznia says. “Affordable in this case does not mean subsidized, but rather that these market-rate units are in more people’s price range. Even if we charge $2.50 per square foot, the rent would only be $800 or so per month.”

This product will open up the possibility of urban living in New Orleans for many. Wisznia, however, does heed a warning for those considering a move to The Big Easy.

“Be careful, because it is intoxicating, and you may not want to go home. You will see the pure magic of New Orleans and what makes this city different from any other American city.”