The Allston Residence sits quietly as a contemporary house in the historic Houston Heights neighborhood.
Clients Matt Lyle and Mimi Phan
Architect CONTENT Architecture
Contractor DD&L Enterprises
Structural Engineer Insight Structures
Landscape Architect Falon Land Studio
In 2018, Matt Lyle and Mimi Phan purchased an empty 50-ft-wide and 132-ft-deep lot in the historic Houston Heights neighborhood — and then typed “Houston’s Best Architects” into the Google search bar. As they combed through the search results, the residential work of CONTENT Architecture caught their eye. The couple had never worked with an architect before, but they knew they wanted a home that would support and reflect their unique lifestyle. They also knew they had the patience to pursue a custom-built home for their family.
The lot they purchased sits midblock on a street lined with crepe myrtles, live oak trees, and the one- and two-story bungalows for which The Heights is best known. The east/west-oriented lot is less than two blocks from the local library and public park and less than a mile from the Heights Hike and Bike Trail, which connects the pedestrian-friendly neighborhood to Houston’s growing network of bike trails. The idyllic location meant that the design of the family’s new home would be subject to some of the city’s most stringent design guidelines, which are intended to define a contextual approach for new construction in historic neighborhoods.
The two-story house presents to the street with a simple, single gable form clad in fiber-cement lap siding and a deep front porch tucked into a surprisingly lush turfless native garden. The recessed porch meets the design requirement that 50 percent of the front facade be a porch, but it does so in a contemporary way. The cladding is painted the kind of almost-white that works well in the Houston sun. The simplicity of this formal approach belies the enthusiastically contemporary nature of the home, which presents itself on the exterior in the fenestration and details. On the second floor, the north walls of the gable along both the front and back of the house angle inward just enough to ensure the bedrooms are never subjected to the harsh southern sun. This strategy creates a vertical line that, along with a change in siding profile at the plate line, breaks down the scale of the house.
Floor-to-ceiling aluminum windows at the perimeter walls appear on the exterior as punched openings. Where the neighboring bungalows have wide and ornate wood trim, openings in the Allston facade are coursed into the siding and finished with a minimal jamb liner painted in an eye-popping green. As wild and iconic as the color is, the subtle consistency with which it is employed is one of the many clever aspects of the project. Viewing the home straight on or in passing from the street provides brief glimpses of color, visually tying the house to the gardens. As one approaches up the gravel drive and through the garden, the lenticular nature of the jamb liners, rhythm of the windows, and unabashed soffits (now overhead) push the white to the background as one is immersed in the green.
The plan of the Allston Residence is cleanly organized with a gratifyingly gridded and zoned parti. Solid bands of functional and storage space run from east to west and define direct circulation paths. Intersecting slots of transparency complete the circulation and pull light across the house. The deep-set porches on the exterior are in fact lightwells to the interior. Rather than punched openings, floor-to-ceiling walls of glass surround outdoor spaces and pull light — and green — into the interior of the residence. One of the great surprises upon entering the main ground-floor entertaining space is how this large open space, bathed in natural light and with garden views in all directions, is in fact very private and sheltered from the street and neighbors. These recesses also satisfy another requirement of the historic district design guidelines that limits the length of continuous exterior side walls to 40 feet.
The home is layered in zones of increasing privacy. Frequent entertaining brings the owners joy, and a public-facing bar island on the ground floor rivals the kitchen island in size and frequency of use. To move from north to south past this island toward the stairs is to traverse strongly implied boundaries. Moments on the ground floor where invitation to access feels most necessary occur at intersections in the plan grid. These are cleverly resolved with functional screening elements: a concealed panel that slides closed, and a hidden door that pivots to redirect circulation and create a corridor.
The electric green introduced on the exterior is only one of many specific colors the owners brought to the design team for integration into the project. Framing was complete and gypsum board already hung when Phan came to CONTENT with a fan of bold color chips in her hand. The architects worked with her to narrow the palette and began considering how to create balance within the house. Firm founder Jesse Hager, AIA, explains that it was part of the design strategy to carefully limit combining colors. “As you moved about the house, there were a few angles where we could not avoid seeing multiple colors, so we tried to ensure they all worked together,” says Hager.
A vibrant violet on the north wall of the stairwell multiplies as it bounces in afternoon light reflected from south-facing windows, creating a surprisingly warm gradient all the way to the open space at the upper landing. Intense color livens and marks threshold spaces as one moves south to north through the more private upstairs living spaces. Skylight wells outside the second-floor bedrooms are each painted on one face with a unique color that serves to enliven the transition into the private spaces and intensify the sky views framed by each opening. The colors in each lightwell are repeated throughout the corresponding bedroom suites. This is one of the ways in which the architects worked with the broad palette to create a sense of order rather than confusion as one moves through the house. The strong colors respond to the balance of light already moving through the building, creating bright experiences without becoming didactic. The Allston house feels fresh.
The shower in the primary suite is a notable exception to the carefully limited juxtaposition of color throughout the house. The multicolored tile layout includes every color in the house — and then some. Lyle and Phan have called it one of their favorite spaces in the house. “We love it,” says Phan. “It is just such a fun way to wake up every morning.”
When asked what they would like others to know about the house, the couple emphasizes their early pleasant surprise at what it means to work with an architect. They feel strongly that others should know this is something they can have, even without extravagant means. Lyle and Phan share that while they knew they wanted “light, color, and open spaces,” CONTENT approached their wishes with thoughtful attention paid to “what it would be like to live in the house.” As a result, they have a home reflecting their personalities and lifestyle that, in their words, they “feel lucky to live in every day.”
Kristin Schuster, AIA, is founding principal of Inflection Architecture and an adjunct professor at the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design.