21st Century Case Study

Our buildings are largely made of materials and fixtures imported from other countries. What can we gain from questioning this fact? Can renewable energy become integral to design? And how should architects address the prevailing conditions in which buildings are, in some cases, demolished and replaced just years after they are built? This LEED Platinum certified project asks these questions and takes up the challenge of defining what it means to build responsibly. Sustainable architecture is more than a checklist—it is the holistic pursuit of healthy environments, which are as much about materiality and vitality as space.

When the architect Karen Lantz bought the lot in 2002, several of the street’s original 1950s ranch houses had already been torn down. Like many ill-fated Houston buildings, these ended up landfills. Recognizing the environmental consequences of that practice, she followed a radically different path: deconstruction. Over a few months, the lot’s existing house was constructed in reverse: every stud, pipe, concrete chunk, shingle, and appliance was carefully removed and taken to local construction-related charities. The tax deduction from this donation—$60,000— assisted her in financing what was to become an all-American home—almost.

Seen from the sidewalk, the house strives for a neighborly urban gesture. The front half of the lot is a collection of outdoor spaces, each articulated with varying textures, shade, and enclosure, creating a generous outdoor parlor along the street. Walking through this multi-faceted garden—porch, courtyard, roof terrace, stoop, poolside lounge, and rain-irrigated urban farm—is the best way to understand what the design sought: a convivial yet intimate framework for domestic life and local flavor in this sprawling subtropical cosmopolis. The turf lawn of the American Dream house meets its sustainable 21st century match.

Drawing on the legacy of Houston’s mid-20th-century architecture, the house is built of long-lasting, rich materials primarily sourced and manufactured in the U.S.A. Bays of charcoal-colored structural steel organize the house, which is bookended by east- and west-facing walls made of limestone quarried in Texas. Rising from the basement to the second story, these, earthy walls contrast the horizontal continuity of the floor plans, which are entirely finished with terrazzo floors also sourced in-state.

Offsetting the uniformity of the floor surface, the ceiling in turn defines distinct spaces. On the first floor, overhead serrations provide acoustical diffusion while enhancing the movement of air for cooling and ventilation. The dining table, defined laterally by a wall of reclaimed Cypress wood, sits under a ceiling of gold-hued mica panels, which emit a warm glow for diners feasting on the fruits of the food garden. Though illuminated by daylight throughout, the house also features 100-percent LED lighting integrated in US-made fixtures.

This reinvented American Dream house is a case study on new methods of building and design in the pursuit of sustainability. Along the way, it asks us to adopt new ways of living, more conscious, more rooted, more enjoyable. While these urgencies seem to be beyond today’s conventions, this house makes the case for buildings that last a lifetime.