After almost missing the last home tour (put on by the Art Institute of Houston), I made sure to schedule everything awesome well ahead of time. It just so happened that my in-laws were coming into town on the same weekend as the 25th annual AIA home tour. Knowing that everyone loves home tours as much as architects do, I made sure to drag – er, bring - them along this past weekend. I was excited to see the 9 house lineup which included two renovations and two designs under 600 square feet. (For the record, they really enjoyed it!)
The majority of the homes were contextually sensitive and responded well to the site they occupied. My overall criticism lies more with the eligibility requirements than the homes themselves. Each year, at least one home is presented to the public unfinished. While I’d much rather get to see it than not at all, it is difficult for many to imagine how the space will be used once it is completed and furnished. Not everyone is a designer, space planner, decorator or architect, and for those who don’t regularly read plans and visualize conceptual spaces, a good design can get lost. Two of the homes on this tour were incomplete, and it made me wonder if I would give them the same review once they are finished and furnished. It seems to me that if the project is not ready for the client, then it shouldn’t be presented to the public either. After all, patrons aren’t paying to see a construction site. I’d prefer if the entries were screened to only include finished (occupied) projects, or at least have a stipulation that mandates a furnished environment to aid the general public in visualizing how the spaces are intended to be used. While I couldn’t find literature on Houston’s requirements, the Austin AIA chapter only stipulates that projects be ‘substantially complete’ by the application date, with no further mandates for completion before the tour occurs. I think it should go without saying that an incomplete project does not belong in a showcase of homes if no one can even live there.
Read below for a review of each home and accompanying images.
527 Columbia – studioMET: 1800 SF
Located on a quiet residential street in the heights, this new construction responds well to the existing neighborhood. A low wall surrounds a courtyard off the dining area, adjacent to the entry gate. The garage sits closest to the street, concealing a lap pool in a second courtyard beyond. The back of the garage is unenclosed, extending the courtyard space for entertaining guests. The L-shaped house is oriented so that the main living spaces on the first floor face the courtyard and pool. The master suite is located on the second floor, and sits above the pool, perpendicular to the rest of the house. Opposite the garage is a guest suite which anchors the property and balances the two ends of the lap pool. Inside the main living areas, a palette of blonde wood floors and cabinetry are contrasted with thick dark wood and steel trusses. Clerestory lighting brightens the combined dining, kitchen and living areas, and a bright red wall adds a touch of vibrancy. White painted CMU walls recede to the background and custom wood cabinetry divides and defines the dining area from the remaining social spaces. At the rear of the first level are two bedrooms and a bathroom, currently used as a study and nursery respectively. Up the steel stairs one finds the modest master suite with views of the pool and an open-air closet hidden behind a wall that does not extend to the vaulted ceiling. A tiled master bath, additional storage room and landing space round out the second floor. It appears the owners don’t have a purpose for the landing area, and feels like ‘left over’ space that wasn’t intended for any particular use. The detached guest cabana houses a bed and bathroom with sliding doors overlooking the pool. Overall, the arrangement of space was logical, and the styling showed clear sensitivity to the multiple bungalows surrounding the property. There were some small details that were overlooked during construction, including a few base boards left unpainted and a strange transition where the stair met at a wall opening. I would have also preferred a dedicated interior entry space, but the breezeway between the garage and main house did provide a bit of a transition, so I won’t call them out for an improper entry sin. It was easy to look past the minor inconsistencies and appreciate the inviting feel of this house. At 1800 square feet, the space was well utilized and would be sufficient for most homeowners.
806 Fisher – Donna Kacmar, FAIA: 544 SF
This small house sits at the very back of a large grassy lot on a dead end street. Surrounded by older traditional homes, the house is unassuming and appears to be more of an auxiliary building than a primary residence. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the owners only occupy the space half of the year, or more likely, because a large airstream trailer sits in front of the house and had me confused as to which metal structure was intended as the primary residence: the trailer or the shed. The corrugated metal siding and marine grade plywood doors seem off balance next to the exotic ipe wood deck that surrounds the house. I appreciate that the house was sized so that additional buildings could be developed at the front of the property, or alternatively, the house could be moved off site completely. It allows for flexibility and eliminates potential waste. The interior consists of ebony stained plywood floors, white-washed walls and a white oak clad core. The living area doubles as a dining space, and the modest kitchen contains the bare necessities: a refrigerator, sink and microwave. A bathroom is directly off the kitchen, and a translucent ‘privacy screen’ partially blocks the bathroom entry from view. I say partially, because standing at the front sliding doors, one can see directly into the bathroom along the diagonal view; it makes me wonder what the purpose of the screen really is. Behind the kitchen wall is the bedroom, with just enough room to squeeze by on either side of the bed. At the foot of the bed sits the closet, contained within the white oak core. I asked the architect about the client’s input on materials, and learned that they had high chemical sensitivities, which dictated many of the product choices. Although the architect suggested the inclusion of a bar counter for dining, the clients prefer to eat in front of the tv. While I can appreciate the use of inexpensive materials and catering to client’s wishes, it feels the $100,000 budget for the house was not evident. At $180 per square foot, with no stove, no oven, no sustainable systems, and a majority of finishes consisting of plywood and metal siding, I have to ask: where did the money go? The architect didn’t seem to have an explanation for the budget appropriations, nor did she know the final construction cost. While I enjoy small homes, this one failed to impress.
515 Ridge – 2Scale Architects: SF not listed
When I looked at the brochure for the tour and saw the image from the main living area, I thought, ‘wow, what a view!’. I think that was an understatement. This towering 3 story house is situated on the upper side of a gentle hill, on the north side of White Oak Bayou. Given the site’s close proximity to downtown, views were expected from a property in this location. What was unexpected was the variety of entertaining spaces provided by means of a first level courtyard, third level terrace and 4th level roof deck. Visitors to the beige stucco home approach a high stone wall surrounded by minimal landscaping. Once through the antique wood carved gates, an elevated stone path leads visitors across the courtyard swimming pool and to a covered porch area. To the right is a guest room that opens to the pool, and to the left is the garage, which also opens to the courtyard to provide additional entertaining space. Once inside the first level, you get to choose your own adventure: the wide stair case or the well appointed elevator cab. Wanting to reinforce my image as both urbanite and sustainability supporter, I took the stairs. Upon emerging into the study on the second floor, the large windows framed a post-card perfect view of downtown. Off the study was a spare bedroom with bath, and beyond the stairs was the entry to the master suite. Inside the master suite, a set of double doors opened to a beautiful infinity edge tub adjacent to a glass enclosed shower. Beyond the bath and closet lies the bedroom, complete with a sitting area, fireplace and more amazing views of downtown. A small private balcony off the master suite overlooks the courtyard and pool below. Continuing my adventure up the stairs to the third level, I arrived at the landing with an option to enter the main living spaces or an outdoor terrace with dining and outdoor grill. A powder room and pantry were concealed behind the kitchen wall near the landing. The kitchen, dining and living were combined in one large room that had extensive built in cabinetry. The kitchen and dining areas were defined by a dropped wooden ceiling treatment, and the wall of windows did what they do best: showcase the amazing-ness of downtown (and at this height, there was lots of it). Out on the terrace was a dining area with grill, and a spiral stair that lead to a 4th level deck with hot tub (and at the risk of being redundant, we all know what you can see from a downtown facing roof deck). With every adventure there are drawbacks, and in this case, it came in the form of a free standing plastic trash can sitting all nonchalant in plain view of the main living areas. You’d think that with entire walls of built-in cabinets they would have provided a dedicated trash-drawer, or at the very least invested in a trashcan with a lid. Out of place trashcans aside, I felt the exterior could have benefited from a bit more definition, as the elevations appeared very flat and the fenestrations competed with the massing for attention. For a house that boasts such amazing views, I feel the exterior should allude to this by accentuating them. If you were to take away the amazing views, this house doesn’t stand well on its own – the masses are bland, and an inconsistent language with the terrace and roof deck make the house feel lop-sided. The material and color is entirely monochromatic, save for the circulation core. Structure is not expressed anywhere (except for the terrace and roof deck, which is why they seem inconsistent), and in the end what you have is a series of stucco boxes. This begs the question: do views define good architecture? Don’t get me wrong – the interior was beautifully done, and I would love to host a party in such a space; however, architecturally speaking, it could use some sort of definition. All in all, this home did what it set out to do: provide multiple spaces for entertaining while taking full advantage of the site’s amazing vistas from every room.
2409 Avalon Place – Interloop-Architecture: 3,500 SF addition
This house left me feeling confused. Not because of anything the design had or left out, but rather because the architect’s descriptions of the project made me wonder who they were trying to impress. For instance, the description of the project says the existing house that underwent renovation was ‘historically significant’, but when I inquired as to which pieces were remnants of the original, I was informed it was a total gut-job. So you tell me – what part of that house was ‘significant’ again? I guess walls are significant, since you know, they hold up the roof…and help classify it as renovation instead of tear down…ehem. Moving on then! Further clouding the project was a lengthy description of the new construction addition which made me giggle. Yes, girls are allowed to giggle, but in all honesty it felt like I was reading an undergrad’s description of a project they’re trying really hard to sell when they’d be better off just letting the work speak for itself. Alas, we all know architects like to use big words to make projects sound important. For example, the addition is skewed nine degrees from the original house (or whats left of it). The architects describe the nine degree shift as creating a “profound optical illusion” and claim that one’s natural instinct is to “compensate for the disorienting effects of the skew”. Um…where should I start. I guess I’ll start by saying, ‘what skew’? No really – I didn’t even notice this ‘profound’ design element, and only wondered why the heck there were some very awkward exterior angles where this skew met the original house. Sorry to have missed the profoundness, but I wonder if it was really there to begin with. Next, let’s examine the idea of creating a house which is disorienting. Really? Intentionally creating a home that makes people confused? At this point I start to wonder if this wasn’t some experiment that the clients got caught in. To make a home (a place of comfort, retreat, security and relaxation) disorienting on purpose – well maybe we need an ethics exam added to the ARE. Moving on again! It’s a shame that these architects felt such a strong need to justify their project to the point they got in their own way. Frankly, the project was nice on its own, and the description really made me question that. As for the building itself, the long front facade reflected a touch of the original modernity with a low profile and partial brick construction. Inside, a stark white palette was accented with colorful furniture and accents. The reveal details at bases, ceiling joints and door openings were implemented throughout the house. A beautifully arranged custom banquette defined the kitchen. Three custom metal stairs were also very well done, as they were slightly offset from the walls, creating an independent floating feeling. The quality of light in the space was beautiful, and all of the public areas were well laid out. However, at the top of the oh-so-wonderful stairs we met a problem: picture windows in the hallway overlooking the driveway – complete with custom leather bench. While these things are independently wonderful, together it created an odd ‘gallery for people’. Let’s examine: programming 101 – circulation spaces are for the movement of people from one room to another. Circulation is generally not considered a place to stay and read a book. If you’re trying to make some sort of statement by turning this convention on its head, you’ll need to find another way to say it – because I’m not following. Also, placing seating in the circulation space that faces away from a picture window makes me want to pull my hair out…well maybe not mine, but someone’s. If you’re going to clog the path with chairs, at least let the people gaze out the window while they do it. That brings me to my next point: windows 101 – windows serve two purposes: letting in light and providing views (and if operable, a means for air and emergency egress). The bigger the window, the more light and more views are expected. Expansive glazing without views or that lets in light where it is not needed is wasteful. Specifically, placing a huge picture window in a circulation space makes me wonder whether the intention is for the owners to look out or for neighbors to look in. Let me put it this way: if the window is not providing a specific view, and the lighting is already sufficient due to skylights, you are creating a window into your home – not the other way around. And finally, given that there are three staircases leading to the bedrooms on the second level, how often would a space like this even be utilized? Overall I would say this house had some beautiful components, but that as a cohesive, singular design it fell short.
4002 Meadow Lake Lane – m+a architecture studio: 4,300 SF
I remember driving past this project many times and thinking, ‘man, I should stop by and check that out sometime!’. Lucky for me, it was included on the tour. Unlucky for me, it wasn’t finished. *sigh* The exterior consisted of exposed CMU, metal panels, glass and steel structure. I was excited to see that the structural elements were not only exposed, but carried through to inform the masses of the home from one end to the other. This created a ‘wrapping’ effect with the CMU, as it appeared the metal volumes protruded from inside the CMU volume. Approaching the house, visitors must navigate a series of rising and falling separated concrete steps, reminding me of the childhood games where we’d shout “Don’t touch the lava!” and jump from one section of sidewalk to another. While I still love the lava game, I do wonder about the safety of such a design, given that there is a wide gap between the front door and the concrete safe-haven. I hope that visitors ‘don’t touch the lava’ on their way in…or break a leg. After successfully navigating the lava field, one is greeted by a large wood volume which extends to the top of the double height space. To the right is a sculptural metal stair that wraps into the guard rail for the second floor balcony. A large reception area under the stair made me wonder what the intended purpose for the space would be. Since the house was unfurnished, I secretly hoped that the owners will put a large piano under the stair and a small seating area… and invite me over for recitals, of course (though I do worry about the acoustics with glass, concrete, metal and wood). To the right of the reception area is a bedroom with large bath. Unfortunately, they didn’t take into account the measurements of the bath faucet in conjunction with where someone would stand under said faucet. The result is a faucet that doesn’t extend far enough away from the wall to comfortably shower without running into the wall. I also hope they’re planning to enclose the shower, otherwise it will be a bit cool for comfort. Maybe that’s their way of ensuring low water consumption. Hooray for sustainability! The first floor consists of a wet bar concealed within the wood volume, and a double height living and dining area that overlooks the yard and pool. The detailing for the downspouts made my heart smile, as it was clearly intentional and well thought out. The polished concrete floors continued into the kitchen and breakfast area, as well as a powder and laundry room. On the second level, one found two bedrooms and a raised study space at the top of the stair. The metal banister continued along the perimeter of the living and dining space, creating two study spaces on either end of the room. I love the idea of overlooking the public areas from the safety and privacy of a study, but hovering in the ‘seated position’ didn’t provide quite as much view as I’d hoped. Maybe the owners will be taller and can see over the second level desk more easily. Overall, this house seemed to keep details in mind and stayed true to materials and structure. I only wish we could have seen it completed.
2829 Nottingham – Natalye Appel + Associates: 1600 SF
You may have noticed that the homes on the tour are all of a contemporary persuasion. This renovation definitely stands out from the crowd, and for more reasons than being the only traditional home on the tour. The house dates to 1935 and is shaded by mature trees in the front yard. Approaching the front porch, one notices the light colored standing seam metal roof which compliments the dark reddish-orange brick. Upon entering the front door, visitors are greeted with a clear view to the rear garden, with the back door on axis with the front. Immediately inside is an enormous kitchen island, detailed in wood and stone. Hovering above the island is a long hood that doubles as storage without feeling visually heavy. White cabinetry and a light neutral palette help the space feel bright. Just past the kitchen is the dining area, and turning the corner is the living room. Multiple windows along the rear elevation and sides allow light to pour in from the well-appointed garden. Details in the form of symmetrical, vertical air returns and recessed light switch panels add a touch of contemporary with their clean lines and rectilinear form. While many traditional homes seek to impress with elaborate ornamentation, this humble design carries a sophisticated simplicity that speaks to the architect’s ability to convey richness through deliberate detailing. To the left of the entry is a dedicated study with vaulted ceilings and cove lighting, giving an impression of importance to the space. In the space that was once a sun room sits the owner’s bed, enveloped by natural light on all sides. Just off the study is the bathroom, as well as a laundry closet that is creatively hidden from view by means of a privacy screen. While the idea of a sun room as a bedroom is enticing, I wonder if the study and bedroom should be switched. It seems that the abundance of windows would be both a blessing and curse: if the owners are not early risers, sunlight will make them so. The bed felt a bit cramped in the space, and by switching the study with the bedroom, another layer of privacy would be added. The architect did a wonderful job at creating a contemporary spatial arrangement that works for the modern family and includes all the conveniences one would expect of a well designed house. It should be noted that the architect was able to balance the contemporary details with the dignity of the traditional design, which can often be a challenge. Overall, it is a beautifully done renovation, and will suit many tastes for years to come.
Wiess College Master’s House (Rice University Campus) – Stern and Bucek: 3,200 SF
I’m sure this is a conversation piece for the current residents, as their address is ‘Rice University, Entrance 4′. Built for faculty that rotates every 5 years, this home had to be flexible to suit not only tastes, but spatial requirements for varying occupants. In addition to the family’s needs, the home is intended to host gatherings of students and teachers alike – sometimes in excess of 100 guests. The entry opens to the main living and dining space, with immediate views into two separate courtyards. High windows face the campus, while sliding glass doors open to the courtyards facing the medical center. Tucked behind the entry wall is a study, also overlooking the courtyard. Just to the right of the large dining area is the over-sized kitchen, which looks more than sufficient to host large crowds. Behind the kitchen storage wall is a staircase leading to the bedrooms. The first level has concrete floors while the second level utilizes reclaimed basketball court wood. While I love the idea of reclaimed basketball floors, my socks caught on the edges more than once, and there were several wide gaps between planks where dirt and debris can fall. Not to mention, I can already hear the arguments when trying to get the kids to stop playing basketball inside the house, ‘Take the game outside kids, this isn’t a basketball court…’ < Yeah, that won’t work. Now, the unusual thing about this house (besides the fact that its a contemporary house in the middle of a Byzantine inspired campus), is that it has no windows with clear views to the campus. There are plenty of sliding doors that lead to courtyards, but each one is shielded from the wandering students. The courtyards are proportioned nicely so that they give a sense of openness and provide exterior views while maintaining privacy for a prominently placed home. This was a big success for the design, as it could have easily felt claustrophobic or shut off. The exterior consists of simple white stucco and cedar, and does not call unnecessary attention to itself. This home appears to serve many purposes, and it does them all well.
1814 Arbor Street – Intexture: 2,400 SF
Having visited several of Intexture’s homes in the past, I knew what to expect from this home: boxy volumes clad in neutral toned siding, a mixture of raw and prepared finishes and a few pops of color. Most architects find a niche and stick to it, and for economic reasons this can make a lot of sense; if people are buying what you’re selling, why change? Though it may be a great business model (from the looks of how many developments they have right now, I’d say so), it doesn’t necessarily guarantee great architecture. The homes from Intexture have always been thoughtful and practical, but after seeing so many, they blur together in my mind. It seems that the firm ‘plays it safe’ more than anything – not that I can blame them. At the front entry, a small planter box is cut out of the concrete landing. Once inside, the corrugated metal on the garage slides effortlessly from exterior to interior, creating a seamless transition. A stair case is directly in front of the entry, sandwiched between two walls: one clad with pine and the other painted a light sea-foam green. To the right of the staircase is the dining, wide galley kitchen and living space at the rear. To the left of the living area is a patio and small back yard. Tucked under the stairs is a small powder room with a sink filled with rocks. Why? Why not. The downstairs was typical, and nothing stood out in particular; that is, until my husband pointed out that the powder room door hit the open stair treads and could not complete a full swing. I pointed this out to the architect/owner saying, “You might need to put in a door stop.” The answer to that suggestion was, “Naaah.” Nah? Just nah? I dismissed the lack of care and continued upstairs where I encountered a study space, and then the bedrooms. I asked the architect/owner about the pricing. The construction came in around $135/SF, and when priced to sell, it will go up to about $200/SF. At this point, I noticed that the flooring was a bit odd, or rather, my socks noticed that they were constantly catching on the floor and I thought to myself, “Self, this is odd”. Probably because it wasn’t flooring (or if it was, it wasn’t installed correctly). It looked like pine planks, sanded down and sealed. At this point I started to get a bit irritated. $135/SF isn’t exactly cheap, but I could rationalize using inexpensive products and materials to keep the cost down. But to then turn around and mark it up to $200/SF when my socks catch on the floor is unacceptable. I took a closer look, and to my chagrin, I saw gaps. Lots of them. Big ones. There were tiny dust ball families colonizing the place. How do you clean that? I’ll tell you how: you don’t. No one in their right mind will spend the amount of time necessary to completely clean out all the cracks and gaps of the dirt, dust and debris that have collected there. I could have dismissed these problems had it not been for the careless comments of the architect when flaws were pointed out to him. Unfortunately, not all architects are concerned with craftsmanship and details. It’s a shame, because these houses have potential, but miss the mark.
5906 Grace Lane – m+a architecture studio: 560 SF
A cluster of tiny houses sits among the shade of mature trees. I remember visiting the first of the three homes on an architecture tour for students before starting my freshman year of college. It was nice to return to the site and see the progress made to turn the area into a ‘design compound’. The newest addition is a tiny one bedroom concrete and steel house, clad with slate tiles. The directional pattern of the tiles is reminiscent of scales. Unfortunately, this house was not complete for the tour, but at least had furniture staged to help distinguish the spaces. The house is comprised of cast in place concrete and is set on a steel frame. The effect of this construction method is that the house appears to hover above the ground quite effortlessly. Once inside, a band of windows provides ample light and views to the landscaped property. A small living area and dining area abut the kitchen, and a concrete core hides the bathroom, refrigerator and laundry. The sunken bathroom is a ‘wet room’, and the floor is covered with river rock. Just past the bathroom is the bedroom with some framed views out the windows. The closet is tucked into an extruded volume, hanging halfway out of the inferred building envelope. These unique details help distinguish the house’s character and establish the structure as a work of architecture, not just an out-building. I only wish the house was complete so that I could see the follow-through on what I perceive to be attention to detail. Comparing this small house to the other ‘under-600′ on the tour, I can see a very big difference in the quality of space. This house felt twice as large as it was in reality, and was cool, comfortable and cozy. At a similar price per square foot, I can see where the budget went and I feel it was money well spent.
I hope you enjoyed this latest installment of homes, and be sure to check out the last tour’s recap. For more reviews on sustainable architecture, take a look at the posts on the Solar Decathlon, and stay tuned for more local event coverage.