Recenter is a Houston nonprofit that provides programs and services to individuals experiencing homelessness and addiction. Its new facility transcends the stigma of the problems it seeks to solve.
Architect Brave / Architecture
General Contractor DPR Construction
Civil Engineer Dally & Associates
Structural Engineer Matrix Structural Engineers
MEP E&C Engineers & Consultants
Landscape Architect Asakura Robinson
Along Main Street, broadside to the rail, recenter’s new Fred and Susan Dailey Building proudly announces that this is not the Midtown Houston you know — or rather, it doesn’t conform to the neighborhood’s recent trajectory, which has been to accommodate ever more young working professionals interested in living in proximity to downtown. The building is discomfiting, brazen, and precocious. It eschews real estate formulas, staking claim to an increasingly exclusive part of the city while catering to a population of people experiencing homelessness and facing down addiction problems.
When Brave / Architecture was awarded the project in 2013, they were given only a few loose programmatic requirements for the facility and the directive to include at least 50 resident rooms. The design evolved and grew as needs and desires were identified. As the scope continued to expand past the projected budget, Fred Dailey, now deceased but then chair, boldly insisted that the design process continue unfettered, keeping the best interests of the program in mind. The money, he was confident, would be found. The additional fundraising and details of land consolidation would delay the project for about a year, but the outcome has been worth the wait.
The parti is clear. Dark metal volumes at street level frame the glazed public programs, including meeting space, a kitchen, the cafe, and classrooms. Wood-clad boxes above these contain the office and administration, with housing at the upper levels defined by plaster. Ceiling heights start high and compress as you move up the building. From the street, the detailing is tight and the execution admirable. The lack of depth on the facade is the only indication that this is affordable housing, but Brave makes an effort to relieve this condition with aluminum sunshade blades that playfully jut from the east and west windows and pops of color that accent the envelope at each housing level.
The Dailey Building takes a beneficent position to the under-advantaged people it serves. It doesn’t seek to hide anyone but provides a refuge for those who want one. An open breezeway welcomes all and offers safe, temporary storage for nonresidents who need a place to stash their possessions while dining. The building tightly hugs the sidewalk (thanks to a transit corridor ordinance) and also provides varied landscape and paving conditions that are far more layered than the sidewalks around neighboring market-rate housing. If there is a stigma about rehabilitation programs, this building brings pride. The tenants are staff, and many long-term staff are graduates.
On the second level, there is an outdoor courtyard, a protected space for gathering that also serves as a mediator between public programs and private residential areas. Brave is candid about the moments that didn’t turn out quite as intended. For example, custom planters fabricated for the outdoor patio provide an outlet for hobby gardening; placed along the railings, they also increase distance from the edge as a buffer should an argument break out. The planters are set on casters for maintenance, which doesn’t conform well to an architect’s sense of order but could potentially provide humane whimsy. A reflective ceiling meant to bring the street to the patio and the patio to the street didn’t pan out in execution but still works, formally. An additional stair from the patio to the upper levels was removed and, in its place, more units were added.
On the housing floors, units are separated by a wide hallway that serves more intimate, impromptu gatherings and acts as a porch to each unit. If this area was open air, as originally designed, it would undoubtedly be more effective. Still, the current CEO states that the wider halls are enjoyed, and their proportion and bright color schemes give them a not unpleasant Kubrickian feel.
In the units — there are approximately 20 per level — the color is deployed with more potency. The Swiss Army millwork is monochrome in a way that unifies and centers the apartment. The color is carried through the trim and tile but is not overbearing. Practicality and efficiency are coupled with indulgence.
Recenter is not just a remarkable building for subsidized housing. It transcends its objective. This is a building that is both refuge and prospect. It is both lighthearted and seriously responsible, a building that one can admire from afar, enjoy from the sidewalk, or appreciate from within. It is about more than the number of units or the soup kitchen. It welcomes everyone into its campus at a time when walls are built to keep people out or keep people in. It’s a statement that everything isn’t alright, and it can be better.
Jesse Hager, AIA, is principal of CONTENT Architecture and an adjunct professor at the University of Houston.