Not Your Standard Issue

Architects design one-of-a-kind houses for the Fifth Ward, trying to prove that even lower-end houses don't have to be a cookie-cutter box

Keith Krumwiede, yet another Rice professor, had recently moved from L.A., and Houston's flatness depressed him. People want views, he thought, and in the Fifth Ward, a three-story house could show the downtown skyline -- a cheap feature that would look expensive. To cut the usual costs of building something tall, he and his design team at Standard, TX proposed to perch the house atop stilts and use a pre-engineered steel frame. For ventilation's sake, they made the flat-roofed house long and skinny, like a shotgun, but even skinnier than most: only 12 feet wide in most places. To fight claustrophobia, they added a cantilevered box to extend the second-floor living room, and let a big vertical shaft stretch all the way up to the roof, so parts of the room were two stories tall. The Domestic Topographic Package, they called it. Some admirers thought it looked like a beach house.

Diane Barber, DiverseWorks's director of visual arts, had enjoyed working with Keith. At the opening, she introduced Keith to her partner, litigation manager Karen Niemier. The two women told him how much they admired his tall, thin house. Keith joked that they should buy it. He wasn't entirely kidding: Even academic architects yearn to see their projects built.

Deborah Morris's garden house is almost shockingly conventional.
Courtesy Deborah Morris
Deborah Morris's garden house is almost shockingly conventional.
The Flip-Flop House looks like a beach house with skinny windows.
Courtesy Williams/Pizzini
The Flip-Flop House looks like a beach house with skinny windows.

The panel of judges was intentionally split between neighborhood representatives and architecture mavens, and in January, when they announced the six houses they'd chosen for the CRC to build, the range was as wide as you'd expect. The neighborhood representatives preferred relatively familiar forms, including Deborah's cute garden house; the mavens favored the high-concept designs, such as Glass House @2°. Keith's Domestic Topographic Package fell somewhere in between, as did William Williams and Archie Pizzini's Flip-Flop House, which also looks something like a beach house. Flip-Flop is distinguished mainly by its elegant, skinny windows, arranged across the walls like so many framed pictures.

The judges also chose the Peavy, designed by Carlos Jimenez. Carlos is known for pure, tranquil buildings in bold colors, and he approached this project much the way he approaches any other; purity, tranquillity and bold colors aren't inherently expensive. "Budget," he says, "doesn't limit the imagination."

But it does limit size. Carlos wanted to use durable, high-quality materials, so to keep costs low, he kept the house small. The average new house now weighs in at a whopping 2,225 square feet; the Peavy, at 1,100, is less than half that, but still holds three bedrooms and two and a half baths. Less square footage means less maintenance and lower utility bills, Carlos points out. To lower the water bill, he designed a cistern to collect rain that falls on the roof; the runoff can later be used to water the house's yard and garden.

Lindy Roy focused on cutting air-conditioning costs. The windowed front wall of her three-bedroom house opens entirely, so air can flow freely from the porch into the two-story, ceiling-fanned living room. The house's memorable roof aids the process, with a triangular section cresting upward to catch the breeze. The result looks a bit like Le Corbusier's Notre-Dame-du-Haut and a bit like an open-faced Howard Johnson's.

A week after the six were announced, the Fifth Ward CRC added a seventh house to the list: Studio Works's InSideOutSide House. The design, Mardie thought, was especially appropriate for the Fifth Ward, where people often hang out in their yards. It even looked a little like the houses that result from decades of homemade additions. The design managed to combine innovation with a feel for the Fifth Ward -- the combination that Mardie had always hoped was possible.

Michael's part of the project, the bright-ideas stage, was mostly finished. "16 Houses" had become "Seven Houses," and now, it became Mardie's job to make them real.

The CRC already was attempting a project that melded architectural ambition with low-income housing. Under Mardie's watch, University of Houston professor Drexel Turner led student volunteers in building two houses designed by Robert Venturi, the famous postmodernist. The two-story houses, with front porches, looked like updates on the homey Victorians you see in the Heights and Montrose. Their colors, though, were striking: One was electric blue, trimmed in dark blue; the other, neon yellow with orange-sherbet trim.

Volunteer labor kept the price of the Venturi houses low, but the slow pace of construction drove Mardie mad: The students had classes on weekdays and couldn't work then. And obviously, though the houses were supposed to serve as prototypes, a for-profit developer couldn't expect to cut costs with volunteer labor.

"Seven Houses" would be different: Everything would be paid for; success wouldn't hinge on charity. And maybe then developers would pay attention.

The two Venturi houses sit near the corner of Gillespie and Schwartz, near the southwest corner of the Fifth Ward, a couple of blocks south of I-10's juncture with U.S. 59. The Fifth Ward CRC owned many empty lots near Sweeney Park, and the micro-neighborhood seemed like a reasonable place to introduce experimental architecture to the Fifth Ward. The lots weren't directly across from or beside more traditional houses; the architect-designed houses could form their own artsy clump. Had the houses been plopped into existing neighborhoods, buyers might have felt awkward, stigmatized as "the weird one" on the block. And besides, existing neighbors might resent the change in their street: Mardie hated the idea that each morning an old lady's kitchen-window view of a wild new house might make her feel like crying. On the CRC's stretches of Gillespie and Schwartz streets, there would be no one to look out the windows and be shocked -- nobody but other occupants of other new houses.

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