Cover Story

Renaissance Man

by Jeremy Alford

Breaux Bridge architect Eddie Cazayoux has resurrected Louisiana's early French colonial style in a way that's both aesthetically pleasing and environmentally friendly.

The smell knocks you out as soon as the door opens. It's the aroma of living history, courtesy of an old-fashioned hearth kitchen and burnt wood, ashes, spices and herbs. It's comfortable and cool inside, not exactly the environment you'd expect when it's July in Louisiana and your shelter is a raised cottage built largely to circa 1800 standards.

Eddie Cazayoux walks through the kitchen entrance proudly, his eyes following the rafters and head nodding in approval. He was instrumental in creating this haven: Maison Madeleine, the bed-and-breakfast near Lake Martin considered one of his crowning achievements.

Madeleine Cenac, the namesake and owner who partnered with Cazayoux on every aspect of construction and planning, graciously welcomes her friend before bringing an architectural detail to his attention. She wrings her hands and points to a small z-scarf wood joint connecting two beams and protruding from the wall. "Should we have cut that off or something?" she asks Cazayoux, pointing at the rustic touch.

"No, no, no," Cazayoux responds. "That's the way they would have left it. Just like that."

Authenticity was paramount during the project, as Cazayoux and Cenac wanted to use old materials to build a new structure, just like the early Cajuns and Creoles. But while Cenac wanted something that was aesthetically pleasing and historically accurate, Cazayoux also made sure she had a home that was energy-efficient. And he is convinced that few were better than the French colonists and Acadians at constructing green abodes that were friendly to the environment.

Ask Cenac what prompted her to create Maison Madeleine, and she can barely put it into words. "We wanted something that had already had many lives," Cenac says, "something that had a soul... In a way, we wanted to become its next life."

Long before he was an architecture professor at UL Lafayette obsessed with Louisiana's iconic and energy-efficient raised cottages, and a full generation before he launched EnvironMental Design to put those techniques into practice, Eddie Cazayoux's first structure of significance was child's play. It involved strapping one end of a bed sheet to his father's old chair in the living room, then tying the other corners to the couch or television or coffee table. The man who's won numerous awards and written scholarly books got started with a simple fort made of bedsheets.

"I was always making something," Cazayoux recalls, scratching his scruffy, peppered beard and smiling as the childhood memories turn his expressive eyes and animated hands into visual rulers. "Little homes were made out of cardboard and I dug tunnels in the dirt. It's a very natural thing. I've done research and photographed children doing this ' pulling chairs together to make something out of nothing. It's inbred in them to make shelter. It's just fascinating."

That's why the 64-year-old Cazayoux became an architect: It's ingrained in his psyche, and he believes it's ingrained in everyone.

The nuns at St. Joseph's High School in New Roads encouraged Cazayoux to pursue art and take note of the historically significant architecture of the grand old city. Boarding school later brought him to New Orleans, and then a stint with the U.S. Army brought him overseas to Europe during the 1960s. His worldview grew rapidly and he was visually stimulated by every place he called home.

Throughout all his worldly travels and the mounting respect he has garnered from his peers in the architecture field, Cazayoux remains a professor at heart. During interviews at his Breaux Bridge home off the appropriately named Green Lane, as well as at other sites he's designed in the area, he asks questions as often as he answers them.

"What's more natural than designing with the environment?" he asks. "That's what I do. I design with the situation," Cazayoux says, re-crossing his sandaled feet and drawing in closer. "What kind of wind will the home get? What's the vegetation? Is there a rock? What is the earth like? All of these things can be used in constructing a home. It's living within your own means so we don't use up resources needlessly. As people on this planet, we should have a relationship with the natural environment. Ever since the industrial revolution, we've separated ourselves from the environment."

Cazayoux is an earthy guy, prone to quoting Henry David Thoreau. Largely, however, he lives and works by the principals of feng shui, literally translated as "wind-water," the ancient Chinese practice of the arrangement of space to achieve harmony with the environment. It's not surprising, as feng shui is a discipline firmly rooted in architectural planning ' astronomy, weather and geomagnetism are just a few of its basic components.

Cazayoux's worldview is also displayed via a bumper sticker on his pickup truck: "We are spiritual beings having a physical experience."

Cazayoux seeks the same philosophical balance in his professional and academic architectural research and work, focusing on how different cultures have designed their structures and homes to stay comfortable while in a hot and humid climate. His research has focused on the Anasazi, various Native American Tribes, early Japanese builders and African tribes.

"We call these people primitive," he says, "but they designed with the natural environment in mind. It's really impressive."

It wasn't until Cazayoux focused his research on the French, and how they adapted their cold-weather structures to warmer climates, that he truly found his calling.

"I'm so proud of it."

Cazayoux's voice is sincere, and you can feel the passion that went into creating Maison Madeleine. The main building, an original raised cottage from the 1850s, was moved from Abbeville to its current location in Breaux Bridge. After being restored, it was connected by an encased bridge to the rear section which houses the kitchen.

As Cazayoux and Cenac walk among the upstairs guest rooms, their footsteps echoing through the first-floor ceiling, Cenac notes that her family was the first to put a light bulb in the structure, which had previously sat vacant since the 1920s.

Heavy exposed timbers compose and support the roof. Cazayoux pulls back a drape and shows off a set of "gills," as he calls them, constructed for the attic dead space. The gills ' small slots on the side of the house near the attic area ' allow air to flow freely and make the guest rooms more comfortable, cutting down on electricity and gas needs. It's a modern improvement to the famed ventilation systems found in most French colonial and Acadian homes.

There's also a special bed nearby that immediately draws the attention of children. It's built almost entirely into the wall, like a long closet complete with an opening that peers into the hosting bedroom. That mental image was all it took for Cazayoux to drive home ' once more ' his architect-at-birth theory. "You see," he says, "there's a tendency to want to build a shelter and have your own place."

In his research around the world where climates are similar to Louisiana, Cazayoux discovered very light and airy structures. But in Louisiana's bayous, where the French colonists settled in the early 1700s, years before the Acadians, they brought with them a rural provincial architecture of heavy mass that worked quite effectively in Louisiana's swampy climate ' after a few adaptations.

The model deviated some over the years, as the French were introduced to flooding, hurricanes and lots of wet heat. For instance, the entire framing process was adjusted along the way, mostly the roof. Those early pioneers also found a cost-efficient way to insulate and frame walls by using bousillage, a mixture of mud and Spanish moss originally used by Native Americans.

To protect the mud and moss amalgam, wraparound porches and lean-to roofs became common, as did separating the house from the ground, which led to what is now known as the Louisiana Raised Cottage. (Brick was preferred by the more affluent, and by those who could obtain it.) Cypress, due to its durability and abundance, was used for most other building materials.

In retrospect, the early Cajuns and Creoles were well ahead of the green curve. Just imagine a French colonial home, and consider the following: Shade from lean-to roofs keeps walls cool and storm shutters knock out the light. High ceilings, along with a raised floor, increase ventilation and encourage air flow. The thick basement area, usually masonry, is also thermally grounded, where south Louisiana's ground temperature remains an enviable 69 degrees Fahrenheit. In short, the Louisiana Raised Cottage is the result of adaptation that still works today, a model that could even rid homeowners of their carbon-dioxide emitting cooling and heating units, and ultimately lower their energy bills. "It's all about being dynamic," Cazayoux says, lifting from his seat to offer a tour of his own raised cottage. "If you design against nature, you'll just burn more energy."

Through his private firm, EnvironMental Design, Cazayoux has his hands in restorations and new designs, but he has also managed to incorporate and tweak the French colonial style into many energy-efficient contemporary structures. He was recently elevated to the prestigious College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects, and his home reflects a four-year labor of passion that is the manifestation of Cazayoux's architectural decree.

While the home has tons of fun and functional bells and whistles, the most striking feature is the innovative way Cazayoux integrated the property's natural air flow and climate, as well as the nearby basins and bayous, into the design. It's built to a centered peak, not unlike a chimney, that holds eight mechanically powered windows facing every direction. Based on natural air flow and wind direction, Cazayoux can open the windows systematically to make the home more comfortable ' without the help of a bulky, polluting A/C unit in the summer.

These top windows work in concert with vents placed under the first floor windows and the crawl space (18 to 24 inches in certain spots) below Cazayoux's concrete floor, which essentially serves as a large slab for heating and cooling. In the heart of the home under the stairs, a geothermal heat pump and water heater runs quietly, helping to circulate air from and through all of these sources when needed. "To move air is simple; it's not high tech," he says. "It's basic physics."

There's a great deal more to the equation, architecturally speaking, but Cazayoux distills it succinctly: "The design of the house is like that of a sailboat. It has the flexibility of changes with the seasons and the winds. The house sails on the natural environment for as long as it can."

Cazayoux likewise shows that great design can be in the details. He has inserted small "night lights" into the scored and stained concrete flooring that runs his main hallway. He also has a larger dormer packed with shelves of books on everything from architecture to feng shui. Extending from that area, he constructed a cantilever balcony that ' when viewed from the ground in the backyard ' is clearly supported by the home itself and no other columns. When Cazayoux sits on the deck for light afternoon reading, he looks like a wise, floating Buddha.

Additionally, rather than having a traditional gutter lining the roof of his house, Cazayoux has developed a bricked gutter system that runs on the ground around his home to deal with excess water ' and it's easier to clean. On the front end of the property, past a full garden that supplies eggplant, basil, tomatoes, zucchini and other staples, Cazayoux brings the practice of recycling to a whole new level. In his workshop ' covered with a "Dragon Skin" he made using antiquated roofing tiles ' piles of used, donated and salvaged wood are everywhere. A resourceful architect, Cazayoux prefers to use second-hand wood rather than feeding the nation's endless need for more timber and clear-cutting.

After sneaking quietly into his workshop and exiting with a fly rod, Cazayoux smiles widely as he points to his manmade pond a few feet away. "It's stocked with bream and bass," he says, beginning to cast. "Pretty nice, eh?"

If all of this isn't enough to turn you green with envy, there's also a nearby greenhouse being constructed out of salvaged, cypress windows he bought from St. Joseph's Convent, near his old high school, for $1 apiece. "I've held on to those for 40 years now and I'm just now using them," Cazayoux says.

Walking back to his pickup truck down the driveway of Maison Madeleine, the professor says that it's sometimes a struggle to convince contractors to see things his way, or rather in the way of the early Cajuns and Creoles. "You really have to sell people," he says. "But once they come on board, everyone becomes really passionate about it. They're amazed by how much we can accomplish."

Cazayoux says the pioneers of Acadiana were green way before global warming entered the national conversation. "In reality, they didn't have a choice," Cazayoux says. "They had to live with what they were handed, which was the natural environment."

As he reaches his pickup truck in the driveway, Cazayoux argues that he personally has no particular style. "I don't have one," he says. "Never did."

Hat in hand, Cazayoux gets ready to leave. His work is his calling, and he's off to take care of various projects. Just as the French colonists continually adjusted their architecture to suit the climate, Cazayoux's following in their footsteps. "It's just the right thing to do," he says.