This awakens me: my partner and wife, Anne, nudging, and repeating. It’s been a long day in an already long week, and I’ve fallen asleep sitting on the couch, still wearing construction work clothes, down to the boots. Our kids have just gone to bed, and the quiet of our typical nights is just starting. But this will not be a quiet night for me.
“Surreal” is not the right word for that moment. The correct term would reflect more of an immediate sense of falling through space, like awakening back to the conscious world and finding the ground is missing beneath your feet. That sense you get leaning back just a little too far in a chair, right before it starts to tip over. And there is that fraction of a moment of disbelief, but as I straighten up, I see she is holding her phone, and the look on her face is also one of emergency, shock, and disbelief. She’s just heard from a colleague who has a house right down the street. Their client has called them to call us. Then quickly on the road; speeding badly; turning over in my mind my own disbelief; wondering if — hoping that — the owners are not home; desperately going through all the “what-ifs” I can think of… “How is it even possible it could be on fire?” — which I still don’t really believe at that point, thinking it must be an exaggeration. Driving, thinking all that, and then, if it actually was on fire, how it might possibly be coming apart.
This I can’t think of clearly, really, but it looms in my mind in parallel to hoping everyone is safe. We had designed three museum-quality homes in that neighborhood, two of which got built. Meadowlake was the first, and it was a real jewel and a hat trick of design realization. The other built one is, I think, a great house, but I thought there might be a mistake as to which house was actually on fire. However, Life is cruel that way: I can see from a distance, getting to the neighborhood by all the light, it is indeed Meadowlake that is on fire.
It would turn out to be an electrical fire, and, ultimately, the building would end up destroyed, but in a very different way than this initial moment portended. More on that later.
The night sky is illuminated. Awash in bold broad strokes of grey, it seems like a fog, but it’s a massive local dispersion of smoke making its own diffuse cloud that hovers over the block. Reds and yellows are filling against and amongst it with intensity, striking and fading on the grey, and I can tell from several blocks away that it is bad, very bad, as the number of emergency lights mushroom the closer you get, blushing with intense spectacle.
I am running down the sidewalk, and it is crowded with neighbors, the street in front full of water and fire hoses. The first people I encounter don’t know the owners, don’t know if they were home. Rapidly, after that, small group after small group that know the owners, but no, they haven’t seen them. More. Same. The first firefighter I reach waves me back from the invisible line I just crossed. He doesn’t know anything about the owners, but points me to the local commander. The field commander also doesn’t know anything about the owners, which shocks me, and a glint of anger flares in my mind, as I want information, and no one seems to have any. It is a chaotic scene, and feels even more so. I tell him I’m the architect, I tell him how the building is built and what the layout is. It doesn’t matter at that point.
The front lawn is full of firefighters and equipment, and there is a ladder truck towering over the center of the building, dousing parts of the metal roof. I will later learn that the fire had escalated into a two-alarm event, bringing in extra trucks and manpower. The main two-story glass wall facing the street is grey, the building still supercharged with smoke. I will also learn later the problems the fire department had trying to ventilate the building, and why it was seemingly still chokingly full of smoke when I arrived. And I will also learn that there had already been a mayday call for a firefighter who ran out of oxygen and was overcome by smoke.
Back to person after person out front, and no one knows anything about the owners. And then I see her. In a small group I’m passing so fast that I have to turn heel. And there is a fraction of a moment where I see her before she sees me, and the look on her face is not just one of shock, it’s also a stunned look of disbelief and loss at the same time. And this is the first real moment of tangible pain I start to feel, standing there, losing the little bit of remaining abstraction away from the gravity of loss underway right in front of us all, as the building is still very much on fire.
We stand together, and I don’t remember what I said in the first flush of recognition, just a moment of eye contact. I then somehow ask what happened, which I immediately realize is the stupidest thing to say. I tell her the field commander doesn’t know they are here, and we move over to where the commander is and make introductions. And then I see him, too. Coming up the sidewalk from down the street, arms out and a slight tilt of head, which I read as almost a… “Life” comment, as he has that kind of personality, the other owner. We hug, and that is something of weight, as I’m the most socially awkward person I know, often making mental effort just to shake hands. But that is immediately what I feel, a need to connect with these wonderful people that we had done this remarkably special home with and for. We stand together, and time evaporates. The fire diminishes, flares back up, gets tapped back down; neighbors step in and out of conversation with both condolences and generous offers of immediate help, as there are now the practical issues of where to stay, how to shelter the pets, and all those sorts of things. The fire department begins the long process of packing up gear, and then it’s around 1:00 in the morning, just standing there, looking at it across the street. And, oddly, equipment leaving — to look at it you’d not guess the calamity that just occurred over the past three hours. The building is still completely standing, and, aside from soot on one of the upper burnished CMU block walls, you’d have to really look at it to see that it had been on fire for hours. This would be true the next day as well, in daylight, where, with a casual glance, it was hard to tell from the outside that the building had been badly damaged.
Meadowlake was designed in 2009–2010, and built in 2010–2011. We were both the architect and the builder. The clients were every architect’s dream client: adventurous yet pragmatic; decisive; intelligent; with a refined taste that was of an epicurean type. Meadowlake was a very unique, bold, and dramatic house, and yet had no pretensions about it. It had real presence without any egoism. I like to think it reflected the owners well: open, ordered, disciplined, refined, clear, yet with bold iterative and gestural flair. It was a building filled with light, varied scale, dynamic and flowing space, worked out to the last detail, and all about Life and just living well without either pretense or apology. For me, as the architect, the house represented a seamless blend of art and intellect, speaking to both our own sensibilities and those of the owners.
It was one of my favorite projects, for all those reasons. It occupied a prominent corner in Houston and was a well-known house. Even during construction, people noticed. When I described it to our drywall contractor, he told me I didn’t need to tell him about it, as most of the people he dealt with were already talking about it: “…Have you seen what is being built on Meadowlake?” It was that kind of house.
The day after was tough. I was there all day, photographing all the details and inventorying all the “as-built” conditions and materials, as we had bumped up the level of detail execution during construction: Many of the details existed only as field sketches for refinements that were worked out in place, a byproduct of the way our take on architect design/build actually works. But there were also positive moments during that tough first day: the owners finding that their wedding photos had survived, as had a few other irreplaceable personal family things. That was the first moment that offered any relief to me since the night before. A bit of Good shines through.
That day also saw a series of Houston firefighter groups going through the building. I ended up speaking to several of them as they were bringing teams in to review and discuss in pedagogical fashion: They also couldn’t believe the building was still standing, badly damaged but intact after being on fire for hours. I can say it is a bizarre thing to be complimented by firefighters on how well your building was built as you stand in the middle of a burned-out interior. But what I learned from those conversations truly shocked me: So many things about the building that made it superior construction in the event of things like hurricanes made it inversely problematic for fire, at least from a firefighter’s perspective.
Meadowlake was a steel frame hybrid with cee purlin roof framing tied back into both red iron and conventional wood framing, depending on where you were in the building. The fire started out as an electrical fire in the mechanical room. One of the air handlers caught fire, which eventually caught the spray foam insulation on fire, even though it was covered with an intumescent ignition barrier, and then, slowly but surely, the fire migrated horizontally through the roof structure. The cee purlin framing was pushed beyond its elastic limit, but it stayed together, and the metal roof stayed intact and together, even as the fire burned up all of the foam insulation and plywood subdeck materials. It was an eerie thing to be in the next day and look up and see the underside of the standing seam metal roof and metal framing, charred and twisted, but still in place. It was also odd to think that, if the roof had collapsed, which it didn’t, they might have been able to get to the fire faster than they eventually did: This was something I heard from several firefighters — that the structure was so robust it made it extra difficult and unique to attack.
These, and other things, turned out to be real problems the night of the fire. I also learned that when a building is on fire, they cut holes in the roof and then force air into the building with high-powered fans to evacuate the smoke and create a small positive pressure window where the air is clearer, where people can get in to see and fight the fire before the added oxygen from this initial ventilation fuels additional spread. That window is small, and very time-critical. Meadowlake had a metal roof: They couldn’t cut a large enough hole fast enough through the standing seam. The metal framing below also didn’t help: Meadowlake was designed around several site sound attenuation issues, as it fronted two very high-traffic streets. Some of the glass was laminated, and what wasn’t laminated was extra-strength, two things that proved problematic, as the fire department had difficulty breaking windows to aid in the ventilation effort. Several of the rooms also had sound-deadening gypsum, the kind with the laminated interlayer. This also proved problematic, as that type of gypsum product, while superb for sound control, is also exceedingly impact-resistant. The firefighters had trouble in some areas, not being able to get their hooks to penetrate the gypsum, and when they did get the hooks through, the lamination layer still held the sheets together, so they couldn’t easily pull down the ceilings to get to the fire in the attic space. And so the building burned.
For me, the worst of that first day after was two-part: Meadowlake had a folded steel plate catwalk system and was a spatially unique building. The firefighters, in zero visibility, had no real understanding of the catwalk or floor plan, and this created delays in access. And, beyond that, the worst of the worst: They didn’t realize there was an exterior door to the mechanical room from the lower roof, where they could have just opened the door, ventilated the house, and been at the exact source of the fire. I have a lot of respect for those guys, and no decision in a crisis is ever perfectly right, but I did challenge them that first day as to why they didn’t just open the door, and it sadly just seems they didn’t realize there was a door there with a straight path to exactly where they needed to go, with about 10 feet they would have had to travel.
I still think about that a lot.
While that first day was tough, the days after that were much, much worse. Initially, there was the sense of, just get in, get everything documented, focus on the rebuilding. Days later, however, a heavy depression came down, and walking through became a living sadness. I went nights with hardly any sleep, week after week. It was like a close friend had died.
The saving grace was the owners’ desire to build it back as it had been. That was the initial plan. We took it as maybe the highest compliment we’ve ever gotten. The owner told me she had a colleague trying to cheer her up with the notion of thinking positive, that now she had the opportunity to get what she really wanted — but she said she already had what she wanted —and that is what was lost.
The true sad turn in the story was the protracted process of dealing with an insured loss like this, where many parties and many issues, such as subrogation, demolition, cost analysis, and so forth, all ended up working away at the initial glimmer of rebuilding as days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and complications began to overrun energies.
In the end, almost eight months after the fire, with endless fatigue at the protracted process to just start rebuilding, the owners ultimately decided to close the chapter and move on.
I know I will think about that a lot, for a long time to come. But I understand. At some point, you have to move forward with your lives, and the process of trying to reclaim what is lost to the past can become too much for the necessary demands of the now.
So, Meadowlake is gone, and I am still depressed. But I am reminded always of the possible, of perhaps new futures for our lovely clients, as I know my own sadness is but a raindrop to theirs. But I still remain optimistic for some possible future that may yet be found down the road. To quote Edmund Spenser: “For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.”
Mark Schatz, FAIA, is co-founder of m + a architecture studio in Houston.