In December 2017, I sat down with Architect & Developer Jonathan Tate of OJT in New Orleans, LA. See more information about OJT at their website. Also, listen to Jonathan’s recent interview on the National Real Estate Forum podcast here.
Jonathan Tate: Why we ended up doing development work had nothing to do with wanting to be a developer. In fact, I say quite frequently that we are not developers, and we do not want to be developers. It was a tool that we had to use in order to continue the application of the idea that we had.
James Petty: The Starter Home*?
JT: Exactly. Nobody was going to ask us to do what we were talking about. So we had to move out of the realm of the abstract to something that was real in order to prove it. The only way to do that was to make it happen. Since then, I have had an affinity for development and a feeling as an architect that if you learned how to manipulate and run the course with the natural tendencies of development instead of resisting it, you could actually do a lot of great work.
For us, this is applied research and to see what happens with it. Sometimes we are in partnership with other people who are developers. They know how to develop. But even then we are all equals, and we all have a seat at the table, we are also generating the idea of the project. It isn’t someone else coming to us with some “great idea about housing” and asking us to come along with them to develop their idea. What I am trying to figure out now is that I don’t always want to be the developer. I am trying to reframe the way architects work with developers, even in general terms. Because of the Starter Home* projects, we have been solicited by people around the country to help do similar things.
JP: Like the project in Louisville?
JT: Yes, Louisville is a big one. How do you reframe that relationship between architect and developer? Something where we don’t always have to be the developer, but where we have a different way of working with developers. In Louisville, we had a development entity that liked what we were doing. They have an area of town that they are working in and had properties that were ready to go. It is the same Starter Home* theme, but it is a different project. When we have conversations with other entities around the nation, we have to explain that what it looks like here, is not what it is going to look like there.
JP: You are not selling them a plan set.
JT: It is not just about the size of the house. It is a total land play and everything.
JP: That is the fine line between an architect and a developer though, right?
JT: Yeah exactly. The conventional role of practice is that you are waiting for someone to hand you something. Your ownership of the project is an aesthetic one. It is nice to own the intellectual foregrounding of something. There is a real sense of ownership at the end of that. We weren’t just given a site and told to put a house on it. This site was created and generated out of our own thought and creativity. You think of development as a play on a program, costs, time of construction, and land. It is a matrix. Those are the principle pieces. We were rethinking what land meant. Where and how we found land was important. How do we build value at the same price point of the people that aren’t building value?
JP: That seems to be the most important concept of being successful.
JT: Yeah. With land, it required a lot of mapping. We used scripts and GIS to look for parcels we thought were opportunities. We could define criteria of what we thought value was. Where are the bands within the city that are on the verge of being both really expensive and really cheap? Can we fit within those bands? We overlaid that with what is permissible by code. We take our technical expertise as practitioners of zoning ordinances and look for gaps and opportunities. This is something people don’t usually approach us for otherwise. But we are the ones who see them. We try to exploit that as well.
In New Orleans, land is so expensive, so we needed to find a small parcel. In Louisville, land is so cheap. So we had to look at other dynamics that we could use to influence why or what we would do there. We started looking at ownership and what foundations and non-profits were doing. We tried to pair those together. We looked for land owned by a land bank that was adjacent to a non-profit. We knew we could leverage site control to gain larger site control. The scale of the project could change over time. You create value with the land that you own as a way to take free adjacent land and capitalize on it.
JP: Your subsequent projects profit off the first, just like your work here in New Orleans. Was it a coincidence that your second development, the 9th Street project was directly next door to your first project, St. Thomas?
JT: Yeah. It was a coincidence. It was a development that happened through the course of the project. Originally we were looking for land opportunities. Regular lots are expensive. So we started looking for these little things. We sorted through zoning and through neighborhood locations to map them all out. We began to focus on one particular location. There were about thirty properties, and we got one after soliciting with nearly all of them.
JP: Were you offering below market rates?
JT: No, we were paying market rate. But it is a small lot. You are paying the same per square foot as that of a larger lot. There will be one next to standard lots that go for $200,000 or $250,000 for an empty lot. These are smaller pieces that still go for $45,000 or $25,000. Most spec homebuilders want a standard lot. That is what their house is made for. They don’t have to hire somebody to figure it out. These little lots, they just don’t know what to do with. They consider them unbuildable.
So when we were building the first house, there was a neighbor who owned the land next to us. He was very interested in what we were doing. So we started talking to him about possibly buying the land. We ended up buying that lot and trying to do the same thing we did at the first house but on the larger lot. We thought we could put twelve homes and do it in the same amount of time. That generated it’s own complexities.
JP: You mentioned something about that at your lecture in New York for Architecture League’s Emerging Voices 2017. You said that the second property didn’t have an as-of-right to build twelve units on it.
JT: Yeah, if you look at what the subdivision ordinance tells you what you can do with a property of that size, you can only put three regular single-family homes on it. The lot was multiple parcels already, but they were little fragments of land. We consolidated the lot and then used the condo regulation as a way to inscribe the lot lines. We drew the condo map. We drew the plan and outlined what people owned. It was an incredible experience and a fun piece of this. We as architects are typically on the backend of this. You are told how it works, and you don’t get to challenge it. Now we get to see what we can do with it.
JP: It is also an incredible urban opportunity. Instead of designing a single-house, you are able to create a community and the in-between space.
JT: Exactly. We are not trying to repeat one project over and over again. The fun part of this is that for every one we do, we are trying something different. The first one was a small lot, small house. The next one was a private client to do what we do. Then we took another small lot and basically created a set of documents for somebody to build their own tiny house. At the time it was the smallest permitted residence in the city.
For more on Jonathan Tate, see upcoming book Architect & Developer: A Guide to Self-Initiating Projects.
Also, listen to Jonathan’s recent interview on the National Real Estate Forum podcast here.