As a young couple in Washington, D.C., Brad and Ashley Becnel fell in love with living downtown. They relished having so much right at their fingertips — restaurants, shops, entertainment. Looking for a similar experience when they moved to New Orleans, they quickly homed in on the Central Business District, where they purchased a three-story property in 2014.
But it was a trip to a more far-flung locale that would inspire them to think outside the concrete box of the CBD and dream of greener pastures, right in their own backyard.
“One of our first big trips together was to Marrakesh, Morocco, where we stayed in several riads,” Ashley Becnel recalled. “You would be in the city center with people, carts and donkeys racing by in every direction then go through this small door to the riad (interior courtyard). Suddenly, the door would close, and the world would be shut out. It was an oasis inside.”
Inspired, the Becnels decided to run with the idea of creating an outdoor retreat where they could escape the busyness of the CBD, an open space where their future children could play. Two kids and a major renovation later, the Becnels today have the only single, privately owned property in the CBD that has a backyard.
The renovation was not a simple one, but both are accomplished professionals who know how to get things done. Ashley Becnel is the global business development director at GOED, a trade association for the omega-3 industry. Trained as an attorney, Brad Becnel worked for the Obama administration for six years before returning to Louisiana to run a family real estate business.
After searching for a local architecture firm that shared their modern aesthetic, the couple hired Terri Dreyer and her team at NANO Architecture | Interiors. And they remained very much involved in the process throughout.
“We are not hands-off type people. We had several design meetings, discussed wish lists and built vision boards before NANO shared their plan with us,” Ashley Becnel explained. “From there, we walked through the plans, made tweaks, shared ideas and picked selections from furniture and tile to paint and plants. There was a lot of communication between Terri, the team and us. It really became a friendship and intimate collaboration.”
The renovation included a first-floor guest suite, office and living area, but the 2,500-square-foot urban oasis was the project’s main attraction. In order to transform the covered driveway at the rear of the property into an elevated backyard, the garage was moved away from the building’s existing rear wall to allow more natural light to enter the new first-floor hallway and primary suite.
Family bedrooms are on the second floor, and the third floor houses the kitchen, dining room, den and a front balcony.
“Connecting the first-floor courtyard to the more expansive second-floor backyard was a challenge,” said Dryer. “To utilize the small first-floor space as efficiently as possible, we figured out a way to cantilever a beautiful, modern staircase that’s both structurally strategic — taking up minimal space — and quite impactful in design.”
The new split-level backyard is 17 feet above ground with integrated plant beds, benches and a full-size play structure, and it’s topped off with a sun trellis with lights and fans that make it feel almost like a private resort. The lower level includes casual seating, and the upper level is open.
“We play with the kids in the open space almost every day — anything from playing catch and having water balloon fights to digging in the planters searching for bugs,” said Ashley Becnel. “When friends come over, the adults can relax in the seating area below, while everyone’s kids run around above.”
To address the light-related challenges of a house wedged between two taller buildings, a wall of windows and doors was added at the back of the house. In the office, glass at the top of the interior wall allows for natural light from the front of the house. And most of the walls were finished with white Venetian plaster, which reflects a significant amount of light throughout the hallways and rooms.
Also contributing to the light and bright feeling throughout the home is the Becnel’s affinity for the clean lines of modern design and their aversion to excessive clutter. Never ones to add to walls, shelves, tables or corners just to have them full, the Becnels do make space for pieces that hold special meaning, especially for art and decorative objects from their travels. And most of the photos displayed throughout the house are from family trips.
“Travel and understanding how other people live certainly made us think it’s possible to have a three-story home with kids downtown, something that’s common in many large cities around the world,” said Brad Becnel. “Travel opens your mind to new ideas and ways of life, which could be the reason we saw a 100-year-old art deco commercial building and thought, ‘Hey, wouldn’t this be a cool place to call home.’”