• The Upper Kirby Residence is wrapped entirely in Galvalume out of precaution for future severe weather. - photo by Gary Zvonkovic

To Gail Adams, “architecture is public art.” Reviewing the work of Adams Architects, it is clear how this sentiment plays out. Adams’ work is oftentimes proud and declarative and yet contains subtleties that speak to the “intangible,” as Joe Adams, AIA, puts it. As does art, architecture comes bundled with the baggage of its creation. Patronage is something that has become increasingly monitored and criticized in the architectural context. Corporations like AECOM, for example, have received a substantial amount of criticism for their ties to the global prison industrial complex. 

In Houston, firms are often condemned for their relationship with the oil and gas industries, and as so many Houstonians fear the effects of human-generated climate change, it is becoming a difficult association to defend. To husband-and-wife partners Joe and Gail Adams, sustainability is not a matter of ticking boxes; it is endemic to their definition of architecture. Long-time residents of Houston’s Montrose neighborhood, the architects have pushed for environmental measures since they graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1973. Practicing in Houston with this attitude has forced them to routinely try to reconcile their approach with the seemingly contradictory views of their patrons.

The first project that required Adams Architects to wrestle with these inconsistencies was their design for the Upper Kirby Residence. Known locally as the first LEED Platinum residence in Houston, the house is located in the Upper Kirby district and proudly distinguishes itself from the local context. The clients requested a finish that would require minimal upkeep and that would weather any future hurricanes and floods. This led Adams Architects to wrap the entire building in Galvalume, a strong alloy of aluminum, zinc, and silicon.

After the facade, the most notable feature of the house is the dramatic roof pitches of the entry and living portions of the building. “Kahn would often ask us, ‘What slice of the sun does your building have?’” says Joe Adams. This seemingly innocent question is, for Adams Architects, paramount in the way they design. Even more than a decade after the building’s construction, the solar arrays still produce enough power to almost entirely supply the necessary electricity. Often, solar panels are simply clipped to a galvanized skin or attached to the roofing seam, but, in this instance, the panel array is tied to the steel structure itself, allowing the panels to float above the roof. This relatively simple gesture gives the solar panels a revelatory position and has the added advantage of significantly reducing the heat gain on the roof. 

Entering the house is an experience in and of itself. Because it is cooled by a system of geothermal wells and can forgo artificial lighting during the day, the Upper Kirby Residence is nearly silent. This, coupled with the almost overwhelming natural light brought in by the northern facade, makes the interior almost ethereal, particularly as it is augmented by the natural warmth of the bamboo floors and walls.

All of the careful planning worked, and the clients had this to say of the completed residence: “We’re forever grateful for the unexpected aesthetic, spiritual, and moral peace of mind we constantly find returning home to this place. Environmentally [and] aesthetically, we did the right thing.” 

The clients that commissioned the house primarily wanted the residence to be energy independent, but equally crucial were the project’s aesthetics. As the home of two prominent Houstonians, it needed to impress and draw the attention of their peers. Before the Upper Kirby Residence, the couple had lived in the famously lavish River Oaks community. There is much to be said about the cultural capital conferred by association with “green” movements, and this was even more true in 2007, when the house was completed. Success was undoubtedly achieved, as the building brought the clients local press as well as a consistent role in some architectural tours. The original owners have since moved out, and new residents have moved in: an energy consultant at Optimus and a senior executive at ExxonMobil. 

Adams Architects’ most recent project, a house in Montgomery County, seems to truly epitomize the difficulty of being a sustainable architect in Houston. Like all of Adams Architects’ projects, it began with an analysis of the inherent strengths and weaknesses of its particular site. For the family in Montgomery County, this resulted in a residence inextricably tied to the site they selected. This relationship is first reinforced via the entry promenade from the driveway. Upon arriving at the house, you are greeted by the north facade and a framed view of the lush exurban setting. There are also plans to have six stainless steel cisterns placed proudly around the exterior of the house. 

As with the home in Upper Kirby, there’s a notably successful reliance on natural light. The north facade opens up and allows a pleasant light to fill the interior areas, while the south facade utilizes large porches with gracious overhangs that make the spaces habitable in almost any weather. On the roof of the southern-oriented pitch, the house showcases its large solar arrays. These provide more than enough power to fuel the needs of the home and significantly reduce the house’s overall carbon footprint. Due to technological advancements in renewable energy, the Montgomery County Residence produces a similar amount of power with half the number of arrays used at the Upper Kirby Residence. As Joe and Gail Adams explain it, they hoped that this building would instill in residents a connection to the local site that would become part of their very being. 

The ultimate irony of this project is that the clients themselves were both engineers at the nearby ExxonMobil campus. For many designers in Houston, this is an inescapable reality. The components necessary to produce a building as well-intentioned as the Montgomery County Residence force together diametrically opposed views. To Adams Architects, however, the project remains as important as ever. As they perceive it, the main pushback to their buildings is simply one of aesthetics. They hope that, as sustainability becomes more status quo, preconceived notions of taste and aesthetics will shift at the same time.

As the impending threat of human-generated climate change continues to grow, it will be interesting to see how relationships with patronage change. Oil and gas companies seem to be more interested in rebranding than in tangible progress, giving rise to the question: “How close is too close to oil and gas?”

Drake Flood is a student at the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design.

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