Houston Modern Home Tour

Its no secret that architects like home tours. When my mom called me to ask if I was going to the modern home tour presented by the Art Institute of Houston, I was excited and slightly embarrassed. I mean, I’m the one who is up to date with all the latest happenings, I live in the city, and I schmooze with all my architecturally inclined twitter friends on an hourly basis. Yet, my mom was the one who knew about this new tour and I was completely oblivious; go figure. Note to self: send mom a thank you note for being so awesome.

houstonmodernhometour.com

The tour consisted of nine contemporary designs, ranging from a three bedroom single level house with 1950 square feet up to a multi-story five bedroom 6100 square foot giant. Many of the homes on the tour are offered for sale, built as speculative homes.

With any architectural criticism, it is easy to fall into the jaded and comfortable critic role: a role that is removed from the specific challenges faced during the design process and is unaware of the difficulties associated with the particular project. When I critique a design, I try to remember that we all have instances where our best design intentions go awry and even our strongest convictions are shot down by contractor or client. I’ve had a few face-palm moments where I realized after the fact that my idea wasn’t quite realistic for ‘the real world’. While some inconsistencies or flaws are expected in every project, it can still be helpful to examine them so that we are aware of their presence. With that in mind there are some general flaws that stood out to me among the body of work.

First, let me address the size of the homes. While some clients demand large homes, small is usually more sensitive in an environmental sense. They tend to use less time, money and physical resources than their larger counter parts. Also, when dealing with an extremely small footprint or program, the designer is faced with a bigger challenge: fitting all the programmatic pieces into a tiny space (and making it work). I find it much more challenging to design a 1600 or 1800 square foot home than one with 4,000 square feet. I was pleased to find that the three homes under 2500 square feet all addressed their programs efficiently and succeeded in providing spaces that felt open and welcoming. For the larger homes, I was more harsh when dealing with their flaws. In my mind, the larger the space and budget, the fewer excuses for imperfections. The two main flaws I found in the larger homes were inappropriate proportions and wasted space. Luckily, no one committed an ‘improper entry sin‘. Below you will see image sets that accompany individual comments for each home.

8210 Hillcroft – MC2 Architects: 3/2  – 1950 SF

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I think the best way to describe my reaction to this house was ‘surprise’. Though it is located in a more suburban setting, on a short cul-de-sac, it was actually the smallest of all the homes on the tour. Usually when I think suburban, I think ‘big’. This house was appropriately sized and proportioned, and the design was based on a clear concept: a series of rotated boxes with a corner cut out to form the yard. Upon entering the house, I was pleased to see a proper entry design (closet and powder room available, but not immediately apparent visually – or with any other sensory perception). The home immediately opened up into a light filled public area with wonderful views into a shaded garden. To the right as one entered were two bedrooms with a shared hall bathroom; both modestly sized. To the left was a short hall-turned-library that connected to the master suite. The garden itself was thoughtfully arranged, inspired by the form of a Japanese Bento box. Perhaps the most interesting detail of this house was the golden leaf imprints in the polished concrete floor. The architect explained that when the slab was poured, the leaves fell into the wet concrete. Instead of covering up these inconsistencies, they were embraced and made a part of the aesthetic in the home – further anchoring the garden and bringing it inside. The overall feel reminded me of a mid-century modern home; mostly due to the colors, the low roof and materials. The design was obviously sensitive to its surroundings and felt very large for its size. The only thing that bothered me was the ‘left over’ yard space outside of the manicured garden. Although the garden was very well planned and executed, the rest of the yard was completely cut off from it and from view; it seemed wasteful. The explanation was that the contrast represented the city vs the country (an idea of harmonic spirits in the inner garden and chaotic ones outside of it). While I love that they had a purpose behind their decision, I’m not sure I agree with it. Perhaps there could have been a way to bring in the rest of the yard visually, or extend the garden boundaries to match the lot boundaries and blend the spaces. Overall a beautifully done home with purpose.

3 W Shady Ln – Contour Interior Design: 4/5  – 6200 SF listed at $1,795,000

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This sprawling house is set on a cul-de-sac as part of a new development in west Houston. It dealt with the same lot type as the previous house, but addressed it in a very different (admittedly, worse) way. While the house is large, the space felt wasted. Unfortunately, this was the only house on the tour that didn’t allow photographs for whatever reason; they couldn’t come up with one when I asked. I ended up finding all the images I needed via the builder’s website, including plans, so perhaps their ‘no picture policy’ actually worked to my advantage. The plan seemed to follow the bend of the cul-de-sac, and the result was a white-washed interior that felt disorienting, as each room fanned out from the next with no clear axes, focal points, or hierarchy. The sunken living area was anchored by a free standing, see-through, double height fire place clad in stone. Although the living room enjoyed one side of the fireplace, the opposite side faced a wall and stairs. The L-shaped dining room, though sized appropriately, had some leftover space that was dedicated to two armchairs; an awkward space that will go unused (who sits on the side of the room while everyone is eating dinner? Who just sits around in the dining room when there are other spaces for lounging?). Immediately adjacent was the kitchen , which was closed off from the dining room, as well as a family room. That side of the house felt very segmented. Under the stairs was a bar: the server stood under the landing while the guests would sit with their backs to a huge picture window. Instead of enjoying the beautiful yard outside the window, the bar guests would look at the underside of the stairs and the entry ‘area’ that blended into the living room. Not exactly well planned – especially considering that there will eventually be a pool in the backyard and the bar would have at least had purpose if the picture window could open up to the pool deck area. Alas, it was fixed glazing and the only way to get to the yard was…well I can’t quite seem to remember a way to get there, actually. As for the second floor, there must have been at least 400 square feet of wasted space in the form of an exceptionally wide landing/balcony/hall (I’m not sure what to call it) at the top of the stairs. It lead to several bedrooms and a media room (with windows). This house had me sighing and shaking my head at almost every turn. Media rooms shouldn’t have windows. If they do, you’ll only end up covering them up with expensive window treatments (I know, my brother does high end A/V – its his pet peeve). Roof decks are wonderful – if you have something to look at. The whole concept of a roof deck applies very well to an urban setting because most urban lots lack yards and are close to downtown (views!). However, sticking a roof deck onto this home seemed superfluous. There were no commanding views, and the detailing on the deck was poorly done. The exterior of the home was bright white with black accents (including the black downspouts). In the end it felt that there was nothing memorable or unique about this home, whether in the design or interior decoration. For almost $2 million, I’d keep my money and keep looking – possibly at others on the tour for half the price and twice the design merits. Bigger is not always better.

4907 Valerie – Architect Todd Blitzer/Mirador Group: 5/6  – 6100 SF

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While I admit to having a bias against super-huge houses based on principle, I appreciated that this one was well used. Each of the bedrooms was occupied, and the large playroom above the garage made sense for the number of children in the house. I enjoyed the treatment of the site, which divided the outdoor space into two distinct and separate areas: one for the pool next to the entry, and one for yard space in the back. It is a simple and practical way to divide a lot into multiple outdoor spaces, and with a family it makes a lot of sense. Kids can be let out to play in the yard unsupervised without fear that they’ll fall into the pool – a very real threat to a child’s safety. I appreciated the clear axis upon entering, which extended from the entry foyer at the bottom of the stairs, all the way to the back of the house, ending in the study. The entry had a closet and powder room tucked away from the front door, under the stairs for handy, discreet use.  I found it a bit peculiar that the guest/flex room on the first level didn’t seem to have a particular purpose in mind, given that it had some amazing views of the pool. A murphy bed and a piano occupied the large space, but felt relatively alone beyond that. I had to question what the space was intended for, since there was an additional guest room on the top floor of the house. The breakfast area was neatly designed with a sleek banquette and creative cabinetry lined the kitchen walls. Upstairs, one found multiple bedrooms, the master suite and a generous laundry space. Along the hall that contained the bedrooms was a small 6’x6′ room that appeared to be a meditation room; or maybe I’m mistaken and it was the ‘puppy pad’ for one lucky dog. My bets are on meditation space, given the single candle placed on the floor and a sliding door to close off the space from the hall. The final level contained another guest bedroom and a theater room (without windows, whew!). While the house is quite large, it felt balanced and well proportioned with clear separations between public and private spaces. I would like to see how this group does with a smaller design challenge.

1818 Palm – Intexture Architects: 3/3  – 2200 SF

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The small community of town homes is currently under construction, and will no doubt sell quickly. The area of town is in transition, with half-million dollar new single family construction next to worn out and dilapidated homes built many decades ago. There is a big demand for new, eco-minded developments that provide contemporary designs and lifestyles. The tour house at 1818 Palm lived up to this demand. Packing three bedrooms and bathrooms plus a study into just 2200 square feet is no easy task, and Intexture solved the 22′ width by arranging public spaces along a linear path. The first floor consisted of a small entry with two bedrooms and a staircase. The stairs were a bit too narrow for my taste (moving furniture up them could be a challenge), but given the lot constraints, I can’t fault them for the size. The nice part was the rounded stair nosings which feel so much better on bare feet than a 90 degree angle. On the second level, a galley kitchen was anchored by the pantry and powder room, while the other side opened into a petite dining room and sunken living area with a balcony. It was just the right amount of space that a group could feel comfortable in without getting cramped. The third level contained the master bedroom with balcony, and an extra room, currently used as a study. The idea was that it could be used as a bedroom, and would share the master bathroom with the owners. The one flaw I couldn’t overlook was the lack of door to the master bathroom. While its true that couples ‘share everything’, I doubt that anyone would want to be walked in on while using the toilet. The problem, as you’ll see in the photo, is that the entrance to the bathroom faces a huge mirror – with a direct reflection of anyone sitting on the toilet. You have to walk past this bathroom entrance in order to leave the master bedroom, so unless your partner is okay with you dashing past while looking the other way, you’ll be stuck in the bedroom until the um…business…is done. How two people are supposed to get ready in the mornings is beyond me. “Honey, please go brush your teeth in bed while I take a leak. I’ll let you know when I’m finished.” While this oversight put a damper on the project, it was very well thought out otherwise. The addition of a door could solve the problem, though a quick redesign of that area would prove more efficient and effective. Overall a solid design.

1513 Fairview – Masa Studio Architects: 4/4  – 4374 SF listed at $1,375,000

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I’ll admit, I play favorites. This design was the best of the bunch (with a few close seconds), in my opinion. My husband and I live within walking distance of the property and had often speculated as to what sort of building would end up here. We hoped it would be something we could be proud of, and not like so many town homes that go up without purpose or thought. This home didn’t disappoint. The exterior was fresh and hip, with a variety of exterior materials including brick, stone, wood and metal. The front entrance was on the second floor, with a sweeping staircase leading up to it. Upon entering the home, a well proportioned entry way opens up to a triple height foyer, a staircase leading down to the first level master and the main public areas. A cozy sunken living area with fireplace opens up to a shaded deck overlooking the street. Behind the living area is a built in desk space adjacent to the galley style kitchen with breakfast area. Additional built ins define the railings. A butlers pantry and powder room separate the kitchen from a formal dining room with large windows overlooking a great shaded yard. Below, on the first floor, is a master with two sets of sliding doors that open to the yard. A large bathroom and closet accompany the master, with connections for a secondary washer and dryer – a convenient option since the main laundry is on the third floor. Also on the third floor are two bedrooms and a flex room. The flex room has sliding doors which open it up nicely to the third floor landing, allowing it to feel open when used by multiple users, or private if needed as a bedroom. One more flight up opens to a partially covered roof deck with views of downtown. The best parts of this house are the details. The  material choices blend very well, the addition of a separate back door so that guests don’t have to go through a bedroom to get to the backyard, the attention to flooring transitions (a small bevel makes wood and carpet flush), and thoughtful layout of each house in the development. The tour home was the only one built so far out of three that are planned. The roof deck can be a feature that either adds value or headache. In this case, the orientation of each home on the lot can potentially block the skyline view of the house behind it. However, special care was taken to place the roof deck of each house in a different location so that no views are compromised. This makes me almost giddy. (I’ve seen way too many homes that have a roof deck with a view of…someone else’s roof) Each component felt deliberate and well planned. For the price and square footage, the future owner of this home should be very pleased to have such a quality design.

2025 Colquitt – Architect J. Bisbal: 3/3  – 2800 SF listed at $549,000

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I suppose you could label me a ‘true modernist’, but I really appreciate the modern tenet of ‘truth in materials’. Most materials can be viewed as beautiful without need to cover them or hide them. When we choose to hide them, it is usually because of construction methods that mar the material or because the material itself is not visually appealing. I take issue when a beautiful material is hidden or concealed, and especially when it appears that the reason to do so is deceptive. If a piece of wood has a huge knot or hole in it, don’t try to fill it with wood paste, paint over it and pretend like its all good. In this house, the architect decided to use IKEA kitchen components. Now first let me say that I like IKEA. We are remodeling our kitchen with IKEA cabinets and they actually give you a lot of quality for the money. I have nothing against using inexpensive materials, so long as they are not passed off as expensive ones. IKEA offers very thin slabs of granite and quartz at a reasonable price. They aren’t as thick as some of the luxury slabs you’ll see in expensive homes, but they are just enough to give a refined look (a thin slab was used on the counters at 1818 Palm). This architect stacked two individual slabs of granite on top of one another so that the counters appear to be very thick single slabs. Only upon closer inspection does one realize that there is a seam between the two pieces. Why am I focusing so intently on this one issue? Because for over half a million dollars, I don’t want two slabs sandwiched together so that it looks like a single piece from far away. For half a million dollars, it better be a single slab. I wouldn’t have an issue if it was a single thin slab from IKEA, but the fact that it seems like deception really gets me going. What else is different than it seems? (pun? anyone?) Something as simple as a counter detail can inspire trust or doubt in a designer – every detail matters! The rest of the house seemed only partially thought out, with small, awkward showers in all the bedrooms, a roof deck with two loud A/C units, and (worst of all) a laundry closet that opened into the breakfast room. Riddle me this: who wants their undies laying on the breakfast table? No one. Don’t put laundry in the kitchen unless its got a separate room. Let’s be realistic: no one finishes their laundry and takes it directly to the closet or dresser and puts it all away at once (if you do, you’re amazing and slightly odd). Where will you iron? Where will you hang your clothes as they come out of the dryer? As a residential architect, these are the types of questions you have to ask yourself: how will someone use this space? If your house doesn’t ‘work’ then what is the point of making it? The limp wires on the fence outside were really the icing on the cake for me. I just couldn’t see anyone paying over half a million dollars for craftsmanship that is so obviously lacking.

1212 & 1216 Hyde Park – Collaborative Designworks: 3/4  – 3400 SF listed at $1,100,000

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Courtyard homes can be pleasant and inviting or cold and claustrophobic. We toured one of the two homes set on a corner lot and it proved to be a good example of a courtyard design; a modern interpretation of one, for that matter. The particular house we toured had the garage placed in the middle of the long side of the house and the front entry along the short side, taking advantage of the corner configuration. This cleverly divided the first level master suite from the rest of the first level. Along with this placement, two separate outdoor spaces were created. One for the master bedroom and one that was shared between the other two bedrooms on the first floor. Upon entering the second level, the entire house opened up, with views from one side through the courtyard to the other. The courtyard was enclosed on three sides by the living room, the galley kitchen and finally, the dining room. The natural light was abundant and it felt like the spaces would really get good use. I could imagine a large gathering in this home with easy access in and out of the various sliding glass courtyard doors. I appreciated that this home was able to fit the program into only two levels, as so many homes continue building additional stories just ‘because they can’. The unique feature of this home was a continuous tiled wall that ran the length of the home and cut through each of the rooms. The material choice really helped to establish it as both a structural and design element. There was an appropriate amount of exterior space that had the key component missing in so many designs: access to an interior space. While I love roof decks, my main complaint about them is they often are at the top of a stair that barely has a landing. You’re stuck going down several flights of stairs if you want to get a drink, use the bathroom or check on other guests. This design perfectly addressed that issue by including the public outdoor space on the same level (and visual plane) as the other public spaces (living, dining, kitchen). The fact that it also had separate private outdoor areas was really exciting. One disappointment came from the secondary stairs. There was a small gap where the stair and the wall met, leaving an awkward peep-hole to look at people’s feet as they went up and down. Simply dropping that wall a few inches could have solved this. However, it was inconsequential considering the rest of the design. At a price just over an million, this would be a great value for those who like to entertain. It was definitely one of my favorites on the tour (and I love to host!).

6007 Glen Cove – Charles Todd Helton: 4/5  – 5867 SF

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Proportion is one of those things we all heard about during architecture school, but unless we were trained with classical education, we probably didn’t grasp the full depth of its purpose. The basic idea is that a piece of a whole work is used as a standard of measure to which the whole work is related. In this system, everything relates and ‘makes sense’ visually. If proportions are not well designed, you can end up feeling like Alice in Wonderland – standing ten feet tall with a door that comes as high as your knees. Okay, maybe that example is a little far fetched, but the principle still remains: good proportion ‘works’, while bad proportions make us feel awkward and uncomfortable, for reasons we may not be able to determine. When touring this particular home, I noticed that while the home’s finishes were all very beautiful, the proportions of the spaces were very wrong (yes, design can be right and wrong – there, I said it). The living room was enormous; a college lecture could comfortably be held here. While the living room’s solid walls were covered with gorgeous stone, there was a huge blemish on the beautiful north wall: a tiny television, recessed into the stone work, just below a cutout that revealed the staircase behind. It made my eye twitch a little as I looked at this wall. Intensifying this disproportionate space was the furniture (or lack thereof). Two small armchairs, otherwise alone in the room, sat facing a towering stone wall with a speck of a television tacked onto it. Let me elaborate as to why this bothered me so much. First rule of design: don’t make expensive materials wrap around changing technology. What happens when flat screens aren’t the current technology (or, heaven forbid, someone wants a larger size)? The wall would have to be re-clad to fill the niche that was specifically made for that tv (remember those great square built-in cabinets that no longer fit your tv? Now what if that was built out of expensive stone?). Secondly, that tv is just the wrong size. It seems like it was meant to be ‘discreet’, but it makes it confusing: are we supposed to watch tv in this room, or am I only allowed to keep the volume really low and lean forward in my chair so I don’t disturb everyone? It sends mixed messages. Is this room for entertaining in the cocktail sort of way or the movie watching sort of way? Considering that this house had another room with a huge projection screen, I’m guessing this tv was added as an expectation of sorts. (all the other rooms that were half the size had tvs that were twice as large – go figure). I see that they were trying to line up the tv with the opening in the wall that exposed the stair case, but…why? Is it necessary to do that in the first place? It doesn’t really reveal the stairs anyway, so why bother? And if you want to see them, then lets see them! It feels like they couldn’t decide what they wanted, and thus settled for mediocrity. The proportions of the exterior columns are also wrong. It seems that a 4×4 or 6×6 structural post was clad in stone to make it appear like a stacked stone column. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exactly give off the vibe that it would do more than hold up a bird’s nest. Stone stacked that high with that small of a base would topple. If the idea is to show structure, then show it. Otherwise, cover it well. The master bath was another issue I felt was a ‘nice idea’ but fell short. The second story balcony had a hot tub. The designers had a great idea to include a master shower that had an exterior door to this balcony, allowing easy access into the shower after a soak in the hot tub. However, the rest of the master bath was so large that it was probably larger than the bedroom itself. It seemed obnoxious (the exterior access shower had at least two shower heads, and there was also another separate shower just to the left of it…someone likes to have shower parties?). I did like that the laundry room connected to both the second level hall and the master bath. Finally, there seemed to be confusion as to the purpose of windows and window treatments. Clerestory windows were covered with shutters which no one could reach. If a window is permanently covered, why have it? The kitchen windows slid open to provide direct access to the back patio, but the outdoor grill was located about six feet lower in elevation and around the corner. Huh? The pool and spa were nicely done, but that hardly makes up for the awkward and compromised spaces inside. For as large of a house, I expected more.

6120 Maxie – WAI Designs: 3/4  – 2500 SF listed at $429,000

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The last home in the tour was one of three town houses to be LEED certified (Gold). The first level had a generous entry with enough room for a small bench, as well as the first bedroom. The second floor opened up to the dining room, kitchen and living area. The plan was very open and the ceiling was dropped along the room’s contours to help delineate the various spaces. The living room windows had operable panels, and the kitchen was well sized. The problem with this floor was (you guessed it) the powder room. sigh. I feel that there really should be a ‘potties, parapets and partitions’ class in college. Really it comes down to simple common sense: if you wouldn’t want to use that toilet, no one else would either. So the question I pose is: would you want to take a dump during a dinner party if it was right next to the dinner table? NO! And what’s worse is that the door to said powder room opens directly to…the dining room table. Not only can your host hear everything you’re doing (good Lord, what DID you eat?!) but if anyone happens to walk in on you, the whole dinner party sees. (How they could be oblivious to both sound and smell, we’ll never know. Just throwing it out as a possibility). How hard would it have been to simply locate the door on the opposite side of the bathroom, so that the entry is shielded from view and opens to the kitchen cabinets instead? Seriously people, would you want to poop there? Its a sad day when I have to ask that question. The third level was filled with the master bedroom and the second guest room. The master bath was well lit with a skylight, but the overall configuration seemed forced. Given the site constraints, there was little else to do. The top floor was a staircase that ended in a small landing with roof deck access. The outdoor deck was nice (no A/C units!), but the view was somewhat unappealing. Overall the house was a solid design, but left me wanting something ‘more’.

I hope you enjoyed reading all about my opinions (and if you designed one of these houses, I hope you’ll take it in stride). It is much easier to play the part of a critic than to present your work for critique. I commend these designers for allowing the public to view their work and be vulnerable to criticism. I think we can all learn a lot from the work of our peers. Take some time to observe the work of others and see what they can teach you.

Until next time…

*Special thanks to my husband for posing in ridiculous photos!*

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  • Nadia Lauterbach

    I agree that Potties, Parapets, and Partitions should be a core requirement at any accredited university; and that limp wires are a turn off. Awesome post!

    • Thanks! During my internship time we had a mentor that recommended a ‘potties, parapets and partitions’ class – makes total sense!

  • La Femme Architecte

    Great critique. It definitely compelled me to agree with you. Love your comment about “dumps” – had me rolling!

    • Sometimes you just have to ask those ‘hard questions’ 😉 Residential architects have to really be okay with asking intimate questions so that the building functions properly. It is sometimes the reason that architects decide that residential design is not for them!

  • I missed the tour (because I didn’t know about it either)–your pictures and detailed accounts made up for it though! We’d looked at the house on Glen Cove when it was going up so it’s nice to see what the inside was like. That television nook and the rock-clad columns look retarded. 

    • Thanks for reading! I’m not sure where they advertised the tour, but hopefully next year they’ll do a bit more of that so we don’t miss it.

  • Pankaj

    Hi Brinn- just wanted to elaborate on your comments of the powder location at 6120 Maxie, if you notice in the floor plan all the bathrooms on each level are stacked above each other to optimize plumbing line runs behind the walls.  Yes I do agree the door is in a bad location and should have been positioned some other way. 

    • Thanks for pointing that out. Stacking the plumbing is definitely the best choice, and the overall position of the powder room works for that level. Really it just comes down to the details on which way the door swings, and which wall it is positioned on. It was a well done house, and I’m sure the future owner will enjoy it! Thanks for commenting.

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