InHouse OutHouse brought to the site at Project Row Houses. Photos and video by Mary Beth Woiccak.
After decades of suburban growth, Houston has seen a recent shift back toward the desire for urban life. Older neighborhoods, some of which were established more than a century ago, are seeing increasing property values and coordinated revitalization efforts. But the cost to bring historic homes up to modern day standards can be greater than to build new, and without deed restrictions or zoning, the character of many of Houston’s oldest neighborhoods is at risk of being lost to new development.
Three Rice University graduates believe they have a solution—one that accommodates the need to modernize while keeping a neighborhood’s material identity and social fabric intact. Drawing on the experience of the Rice Building Workshop and its experiments with small-scale housing and core consolidation, Andrew Daley, Jason Fleming, and Peter Muessig realized that the majority of residential renovation costs are associated with mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems. Under the direction of faculty at Rice School of Architecture, they designed the InHouse OutHouse, a prefabricated core that consolidates residential MEP systems, as well as a kitchen and full bathroom, into a roughly 8.5-by-14-foot module. As the core is assembled off site, an opening is cut into the side of the existing house. The core is then shipped to the site, inserted, and the building envelope resealed. Once the MEP systems are coupled to on-site services, the transplant is complete.
The Shanghai Bund, all image courtesy SWA Group unless noted
The following is an excerpt from Cite 88, a special issue that offers a unique and critical glimpse into the evolving state of architecture, economic growth, and overall well-being in China. Below is an interview conducted by Tom Colbert and Raj Mankad with SWA Group’s Scott Slaney, who recently moved from Houston to Shanghai. You can pick up a copy of Cite 88 at Brazos Bookstore, CAMH, MFAH, Issues, Domy, River Oaks Bookstore, and other stores. Don’t miss it!
Cite: What are the big differences between working as a design firm in China and in Houston?
Scott Slaney: There are three primary differences. One is the greater scope and scale of our work in China; the second is speed, projects happen at an incredibly fast rate; the third is design depth. We take most of our work in China only to a design development level then work with a local design institute who will prepare construction documents, seal drawings, and provide some construction observation, though typically pretty light. Taken together, greater scope and scale, speed and relatively shallow design depth, the net result is that building projects that live up to our quality standards is a real challenge. Meeting this challenge is one of the key reasons our SWA Shanghai office has been established. The good news is that more and more clients are asking us to get involved in construction to ensure that the design intent is realized in an enduring fashion. We characterize our role as “design oversight during construction.”
Magic Island site at Southwest Freeway and Greenbriar Street. All photographs Paul Hester.
Paul Hester’s retrospective Doing Time in Houston at Architecture Center Houston—culled from his extensive archive documenting Houston’s architecture through all its transitions over the past 45 years–invites the viewer to contemplate all that has ever stood on this viscid alluvium we call home. Row houses razed to make room for rows of gated townhomes; first ring suburbs mowed down to clear space for skyscrapers. Here, a saddlery turned ballet parking lot; there, a sea food market turned newspaper headquarters. Even the buildings left standing have been stripped and fused and cloaked in marble panels or kitschy Egyptian temples (see my “Ancient Curse of Freeway Frontage Excavated from Archives,” Cite 81, Spring 2010).
In this Hear Our Houston audio tour and contribution to Unexpected City, Musician Pete Gordon takes us on a looped walk around Midtown where he has owned and operated The Continental Club for ten years. 3700 Main used to be a general store in the 1920s and is now a thriving music venue and bar run by Pete, who loves preserving the old architecture while importing some of Austin’s quirkiness after the original Continental Club. I personally recommend stopping by on a Monday night to hear the masterful contemporary tango composer and piano man Glover Gill. Sink into a Southern pace and the pats of Pete’s cowboy boots while he recalls the area’s evolution over the past ten years, marvels at his favorite buildings, and hopes for preservation of historic architecture moving forward. Listen by clicking on the link below:
Midtown by Pete Gordon
Cover image cropped from Monu issue #14.
Houston has always had a tricky relationship with historic preservation. Unlike numerous other global cities, Houston often allows its older structures to grow over with weeds or be demolished, eventually making way for new development. Traditional preservationism would imply that this approach is morally wrong: not to preserve architectural history is to lose it forever.
Yet both the new issue of MONU: Magazine on Urbanism and a recent show called Cronocaos, curated by Rem Koolhaas at the New Museum in New York, question our common approach to preservation. Should old buildings be preserved in a pristine state forever, or should they be allowed to remain an active part of a city, even if they continue to deteriorate from use? Has historic preservation done more damage to cities than good, by airbrushing and sanitizing them for tourists and the wealthy, while making them less accessible and useful to citizens? The image portrayed by Koolhaas is of preservationists cleaning facades, scrubbing interiors, and then putting up metaphorical velvet ropes that prevent users from getting too close to the architecture—”please do not touch. Even clean hands can harm the art….etc.” Even the term preservation implies an object sealed off from the effects of time, petrified, as it were.
Spectators watch as the rotation of a house in Sharpstown is completed.
It is 11 a.m. on a Thursday in Sharpstown, Houston. Roughly forty spectators sit obediently on metal benches provided by Cherry House Moving Company — a mix of Rice University students, architects, “just in for the day” New York art scenesters and garden-variety devotees of conceptual artist Mary Ellen Carroll. Today, Carroll will rotate the ranch home at 6513 Sharpview as the climactic moment in her decade-in-the-making work, “Prototype 180.”
Arguably the most pivotal moment in the artist’s career, “Prototype 180” proposes a myriad of questions on art, architecture, and urbanism. Most obvious is that Carroll is intervening in the makeup of this neighborhood, thereby underscoring the historic significance of Sharpstown as the nation’s largest community of single-family homes when it was conceived in 1954, and its transformation after the 1982 economic downturn from white suburb to immigrant-rich density. The rotational rupture also questions issues of land art and real estate, policy and public space, urban sprawl and first-ring suburbs.
Sylvan Beach Pavilion, designed by Greacen & Brogniez, 1953. Photo by Hank Hancock.
The citizens of La Porte may be forgiven if they just can’t figure out what their elected officials have in store for the Sylvan Beach Pavilion, a significant work of civic architecture located at Harris County’s only public beach. For twenty years, the city of La Porte rented the structure for cheap from Harris County and operated the venue—a dancehall, a performance space, a banquet room, a conference hall—in just the way that a municipal government will do when it finds itself in the hospitality business, which is to say, reluctantly, negligently, and sporadically. Interested renters were turned away without explanation. The space often sat empty on weekend evenings, when one might expect it to turn some business. Once recognized across the region as one of the foremost entertainment venues, the pride of La Porte, the Sylvan Beach Pavilion withdrew into obscurity, a generational bookmark. The city put off making regular repairs, as required by its lease, so the place just got shabby.
1904 Decatur house, MC2 Architects, photograph by Hester + Hardaway from Cite 51
Recently Mayor Annise Parker has brought forth the possibility of new development restrictions in Houston’s historic districts. On a June 9 kuhf public radio broadcast, Parker commented on the potential changes to ordinance, saying, “If you’re building in a historic district, the expectation is that you will build something that in mass and scale and general appearance fits into the district. If you want to come and put a big metal ultra-modern townhome in the middle of the district you will not receive a certificate of appropriateness.”
Copper pinnacle replica lowered on Harris County Courthouse, all photographs Nash Baker
In 1910, the Harris County Courthouse defined Houston’s skyline. As the tallest building in the city by over 100 feet, the courthouse quickly became the crown jewel of the modest downtown. Today, the courthouse remains standing at 210 feet, but it is somewhat dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers. With building technology so closely tied to scale, it is no wonder that Houston’s downtown has evolved to great heights. But recently the city’s skyline has taken on a new look, the Harris County Courthouse has grown a little taller, and it is worth craning your neck to notice.
On March 14th, a 15-foot copper pinnacle that looks a bit like a chess pawn was mounted on the Courthouse’s dome. Crowning the top of the building, this piece serves as a replacement for the building’s 1910 original, which reportedly has been absent for over 90 years.
University of Houston Downtown from Allen's Landing, this photo Wikimedia Commons, all others Celeste Williams
Houston is home to a wealth of Art Deco and Streamlined Moderne architecture. Celeste Williams received a grant from the Rice Design Alliance in 2000 to develop a self-guided tour along the METRORail. Williams, an architect with Kendall/Heaton Associates, worked with graphic designer Peter Boyle to produce a brochure (download front and back). Below is an online version of the tour.
University of Houston DOWNTOWN CAMPUS
1 North Main Street
The University of Houston Downtown’s compact campus is composed of several smaller annexed structures to the former Merchants and Manufacturers Building. Originally designed in 1930 by Giesecke & Harris Architects, the building’s classic Art Deco vertical detailing was meant to call out the pinnacle of commerce near Houston’s historic Allen’s Landing. The eleven-story mid-rise height of the building allows it to hold its site amidst the larger scale freeway overpasses and bridges that surround it. On the south side, a roof terrace provides beautiful views of the downtown skyline. A detail of interest is the monel mailbox, part of a chute system that was state-of-the-art for its time.