• A 1,025-sf addition to the 23-year-old townhouse in Houston’s Rice Military neighborhood intentionally engages with the streetscape amid the new norms of living and working from home during a pandemic. - photo by Jon Henning

The Rose/Knox Townhouse addition and renovation opens to its Houston neighborhood, invigorating public and private realms.

Architect Architect Works
Client Donna Kacmar, FAIA, and Jonathan Myers, AIA
Structural Engineer Insight Structures
Mechanical Engineer E&C Engineers & Consultants
Materials Testing A&R Engineering and Testing

In April 2021, the Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research released the report “Re-Taking Stock: Understanding How Trends in the Housing Stock and Gentrification are connected in Houston and Harris County.” The report describes how Houston, the largest city in America without zoning, reduced minimum lot size requirements in the late 1990s, laying the framework for developers and builders to subdivide large lots into townhouses or multifamily apartments. 

Critics have called townhomes “harbingers of gentrification that threaten neighborhood character and affordability”; proponents argue that “greater residential density [is] a way to stabilize increases in home prices in the long term, in addition to being a more climate-friendly housing model.” For Donna Kacmar (now FAIA) and two of her friends, all at the start of their architectural careers in the late ’90s, collaborating on a set of townhouses brought into reach the goal of building homes close to downtown, something none of them could afford individually.

The three friends purchased a 5,600-sf lot in Houston’s Rice Military neighborhood, subdivided it, and constructed a set of three contiguous townhomes, mostly identical on the exterior, individualized on the interior, and focused on affordable solutions each step of the way (see the January/February 1998 issue of Texas Architect).

Rice Military was originally composed of bungalows and shotgun houses on tree-lined streets. Most of those homes were long ago demolished and replaced with single-family two- and three-story structures, condos with artists’ warehouses, and folk art houses, such as the Beer Can House on Malone Street or the shimmery, ribbed metal Tin Houses, which, along with the catalytic design of the Rice University Media Center a few miles south, ushered in the city’s tin house movement. The Rose/Knox Townhouses, clad in Galvalume, cementitious fiberboard, and load-bearing concrete masonry, fit right into the diverse neighborhood.

Twenty years later, Kacmar decided to expand her home, located on the eastern end of the property, with a 1,025-sf addition designed by her and her husband, Jonathan Myers, AIA. The newlywed duo embarked on the project in the post-Hurricane Harvey building boom in Houston and finished it in October 2019 — just five months before the pandemic shutdown of 2020 would transform how they lived and worked from home.

Back in 1998, Kacmar requested that the city record a prevailing setback at 17 ft instead of the 10-ft norm other builders came to adhere to for lot lines. This proved problematic for the extension. “We had to get neighbors to sign and rescind the setback. It threw the project off by a couple months. My idealistic 30-year-old self was holding back my 50-year-old self from building beyond the prevailing setback of the now no longer extant 1940s-era bungalows,” Kacmar says, laughing. 

But those extra seven feet were critical to the house’s expansion and connection to the neighborhood. A ground floor rock garden became their al fresco dining room for intimate dinners. The light footprint on the first floor maximized permeable surface drainage. A glass-enclosed studio provided space for Kacmar’s practice and became her lifeline to her University of Houston students when the school transitioned to digital space. 

The architects used corrugated metal on the addition, along with other humble and industrial materials (including Tyvek curtains) to blend the design with and respect the pre-existing environment. Metal, while seemingly cold, reflects the color of the sky and the landscape; it also outperforms most materials in Houston’s unsparing climate. 

Describing the massing of the expansion, Myers says, “It was important that we opened the unit to the street and reconnect.” Inspired by the bungalow porches of the past, the 15-ft-wide addition features exterior and interior spaces offering varying levels of connection to the neighborhood. It also includes the pair’s new third-floor bedroom/bathroom suite, a second-floor lounge/salon space for drinks and movie nights, and 657 sf of covered exterior space overlooking the trees and a neighbor’s metal house designed by Val Glitsch, FAIA.

“Torus,” a sculpture gifted to Kacmar by the artist, Eric W. Stephenson, greets passersby along the ditch and culvert road, along with planter garden boxes that survived the freeze and have new sprouts of parsley, rosemary, basil, and bok choy pushing through.

The design of the extension is practical, in touch with history, and elevates the house into sculpture for living artfully. Its openness to the street has kept the residents connected to outdoor life patterns — yes, pedestrians do stroll this Houston neighborhood — throughout a time when isolation and distance have been the norm. This new iteration of the Rose/Knox townhouse does something rather rare among Texas residential developments: It seeks to invigorate the lives of its occupants and the community by recognizing that those seemingly dichotomous spheres can be mutually supporting.  

Florence Tang is a journalist, designer, and project manager based in Houston.

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