• A cylindrical courtyard insulates the residents from the densifying neighborhood while keeping them in touch with natural light and views. Photo by Paul Hester

Project  El House, Houston
Architect  WW Architecture
Design Team  Ron Witte, AIA; Sarah Whiting, Assoc. AIA; Dan Baklik; Sam Biroscak; Mary Casper; Alicia Hergenroeder; Rasem Kamal; Riley Neal; Renee Reder; Geoffrey Sorrell; Sam Tannenbaum; Liang Wang; Peter Di Yi
Photographers  Nash Baker; Paul Hester; Ron Witte, AIA

El House, by WW Architects (the practicing partnership of academics Ron Witte, AIA, and Sarah Whiting, Assoc. AIA) proposes a new typology for private homes in densifying environments with a powerfully simple reinterpretation of the central courtyard. Set as it is on a quiet suburban street in southwest Houston that has sustained annual property value increases of 10 percent over the last five years, the architects cite the combined pressures of increasing property values and a general desire among homeowners to maximize volume as their original inspiration. The simple, cubic response employs strategic window placement and a cylindrical void to insulate the interior without isolating occupants from natural views or presenting a hostile facade to the street.

Responding to the pressures of value and volume resulting in the jarring collection of adjacent styles, scales, and eras, the typology asserted by El House offers a universal solution. Employing windows at varying heights and sizes to frame views into, across, and out of the house, the architects created 14 distinct “wobbly” view axes to achieve interest and connectivity. Prioritizing views to the sky and the stable parts of the surrounding environment (in this case, established trees), the combination of central void and controlled views protects the interior experience while maintaining broad context connectivity. It is this power as a transcendent typology that differentiates the project. Imagining the rounded central courtyard in active rotation as “it works sectionally up through the building,” jurors noted that the strategy employed “is a model that has a lot of strength.” The clarity of understanding offered by the design and accompanying diagrams is explicit and effective.

FEMA flood zone designations required that living areas of the home be elevated above the ground. Observing that this height increase succeeded in inflating the effective scale of many recently built homes in the area, the architects created a simple detail to achieve the opposite effect. By cantilevering the perimeter of the structure out over a narrow band of white stone, the necessary height was achieved while making the cube form of the house appear to float. At night, perimeter downlights create a soft glow between the home and the ground plane.

Material selection and color palette, like the form, are simple and strategic. Witte described the design team’s extensive research into exterior cladding options that produced the dark gray thin brick. As all brick facades perform as veneer, not structure, the lighter weight of the thin brick made the cantilevered structure-to-ground detail feasible. The specific color and composition creates subtle surface light refractions that add interest to the facade and highlight the curve of the interior courtyard.

Similar restraint is found on the interior. Walls are painted gypsum white everywhere except for the pale blue that sets off the kitchen. Crisp, custom reveals at window and baseboard are consistent throughout. Blonde hardwoods are punctuated only by dark slate at the entry, kitchen, and terraces. Fixtures, cabinets, and technology recede, leaving the focus on the form and intersecting views.

In selecting El House from “the many, many beautiful projects” considered this year, the jurors gave credit to the architects’ restraint. Demonstrating confidence that the simplicity of the mission, diagram and tectonic response were enough, El House stood out for being “beautifully edited.”

Jamie Flatt, Assoc. AIA, is a principal in Page’s Houston office.

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