• The eastward facing porch connects the primary living quarters to guest rooms. Photo by Casey Dunn.

Project Joy House, Marfa
Client Kok Lye and Joy Ohara
Architect Kinneymorrow Architecture
Design Team Michael Morrow, AIA
Photographer Casey Dunn

block away from the much-traveled but always welcoming Highway 67 leading south out of Marfa, the Joy House sits quietly but unabashedly.

Originally a small three-room adobe dwelling, the house was constructed around the turn of the 20th century. Two subsequent small, sympathetic adobe additions along with several much-less-sympathetic outgrowths to its west transformed the original structure into what could be thought of as one of Marfa’s early examples of multifamily housing. 

Though at first not especially familiar with Marfa’s quirky culture,
a West Coast couple quickly befriended this unique, ever-fascinating,
open-hearted West Texas town. As part of their early experience, they stumbled on the quiet house, which sat habitable, but in a form of quasi-dilapidation and disrepair.

Based on previous experience, they engaged Michael Morrow, AIA, of Houston-based Kinneymorrow Architecture to lead in the redesign efforts. Constrained by only a few programmatic requirements — the house needed to be disconnected from the digital world, and it had to have acceptable means of providing heating and cooling — Morrow and his team began to evaluate the state of the structure. During this discovery period, it became apparent to the team that the project would require a redactive approach. The primary focus was placed on the rehabilitation and enhancement of the principal adobe structures: Getting rid of wood-framed walls inside the original units — as well as all framed additions
to the west — revealed simple, inviting spaces. The architects retained the locations of the openings within the adobe walls, preserving the expression of the existing composition. In addition, existing service spaces were removed from the adobe structures, leaving the earthen rooms to function only as living and sleeping quarters.

Five walls that partition the length of the original building became fundamental organizing elements for the placement of light monitors that span the width of the house. These monitors open to the south, ushering in the abundant West Texas sun and creating an ever-changing dance of light throughout the spaces, both day and night. Smooth, dark plaster interior walls enhance the play of light and shadow that sunlight and moonlight cast. Earthen walls are complemented by concrete floors, whose lightly ground finish highlights the material qualities contained within each.

The concrete floors extend into framed additions along the western edge of the adobe buildings, tying together existing and new. Intersections of each are guided by exterior doors in the original structures, and the additions frame courtyards that welcome the southern sun into, and throughout, the rooms. Links between existing and new are accentuated by matched and aligned glazing, creating a light embrace between the two. Housed within the additions are the service spaces required of sporadic but extended visits: The smaller two of the three additions contain compact but well-equipped kitchens, bathrooms, and storage spaces serving two guest quarters located on the northern end of the house. The largest of the additions contains similar bath and storage spaces, along with a larger kitchen space that opens to the south for entertaining and art display. The service spaces are finished in white hues with dark millwork accents, setting off the dark, original adobe in a simple proportion whose dark:light = old:new relationship echoes the dynamic of light and shadow, and the rhythm of the light shifts slightly as one moves throughout the spaces.

The exterior of the house maintains a simple and honest material palette. Its adobe walls were repaired and re-plastered where needed
and finished with a straightforward plaster one has come to expect of West Texas. The connecting wood-framed porch along the east side
of the original structure was reconstructed with pine framing members assembled in a clean and concise manner. The roof of the original structure, light monitors, and exterior walls of the new additions are clad in corrugated cementitious panels. In contrast to the uniform finish of the plaster-covered adobe, these corrugations add a rich methodic texture to the balance of the exterior. Though they have an obvious practical application mitigating the effects of the notoriously unforgiving Texas sun, these panels also herald the pleasant, constantly changing dance of light and shadow that visitors experience as they enter, and as they continue
to move about, the house.

While Morrow contends that the Joy House is only 95 percent complete, shortcomings are hard to find. The house exhibits rich combinations of past and present, ever-varying textures, and carefully orchestrated light and shadow — all merged together to usher in a unified — joyful — experience.

T.J. McClure, AIA, is a principal of Rhotenberry Wellen Architects in Midland.

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