• The canopy above casts a billowing shadow on the scalloped volume below. - photo by Iwan Baan

The Houston Endowment Headquarters draws inspiration from its once densely forested site.

Project Houston Endowment Headquarters
Location Houston
Client Houston Endowment
Architects Kevin Daly Architects and PRODUCTORA
Design Team kdA: Kevin Daly, FAIA, Luke Smith, Gretchen Stoecker, Phineas Taylor-Webb, Ryan Conroy, Casey Worrell, Kevin Ulmer, Evan Hursley, Stephen Baron; PRODUCTORA: Wonne Ickx, Nicolás Fueyo
Contractor Bellows
Local Representative Kirksey Architecture
MEP Engineer CMTA
Structural Engineer Arup
Civil Engineer BGE
Sustainability Consultant Transsolar
Construction Manager Forney Construction
Lighting Designer George Sexton Associates
AV/IT 4B Technology
Acoustics Newson Brown
Waterproofing Curtainwall Design Consulting
Environmental Graphics MG&Co.
Landscape Architect Tom Leader Studio
Photographers Iwan Baan, Lawrence Elizabeth Knox 

Thermally, Houston can be difficult. The city’s over-reliance on central air and the energy it consumes are well documented, but the reality is that the city’s hot, humid climate renders most passive systems ineffective, especially in the extremely hot summer months. Under conditions where most attempts to provide comfort fail, shade always offers some sense of relief. Consequently, in their design for the Houston Endowment Headquarters, Kevin Daly Architects and PRODUCTORA prioritize shade above all else.

The architects’ design was inspired by the tree canopy that provides a consistent datum throughout the city. Discussing his initial reaction to the site, PRODUCTORA’s Wonne Ickx, Intl. Assoc. AIA, recalls, “In many areas of the city, these trees extend their low-hanging branches far out, creating a continuous canopy that becomes very architectural in its density and appearance.” Historically, the tree canopy on the site possessed an even greater presence than it does today. In their research for project, the landscape architect, Tom Leader Studio, discovered an aerial photograph of the area from 1953 of a densely forested landscape where the site now lies, and that image made an impression on the designers. 

The building sits at the top of a steep hill, overlooking Spotts Park below. Beyond the park lie Buffalo Bayou and the green spaces that line its banks, flanked by Memorial Drive to the north and Allen Parkway to the south. From the top of the hill, the tree canopy renders both the bayou and vehicles invisible, but their presence remains audible as the sounds of birds and basketball games from the park intermingle with the subtle noise of traffic below.    

Currently, the building’s presence at the top of the hill may appear a bit stark. From the bayou, the building seems to loom over the park, feeling almost classical in its positioning. In his review of the Houston Endowment Headquarters for The Architect’s Newspaper, architect Ben Koush compares the building to a “temple on a hill.” From a distance that reading holds true, but as one approaches, a more nuanced relationship between the building and its surroundings becomes apparent. While from afar it appears to rest on a plinth, the building actually hovers just above the ground plane, supported by slender white columns that enable it to float above the surrounding landscape. That landscape consists of linear gabion walls and a field of native plants that conceal the semisubterranean parking garage and blur the boundary between the building and the park. The landscape design places river birch trees between the white columns of the building. As those trees mature, their white trunks and expanding canopies are intended to further reducethe presence of the building and help restore the density of the tree canopy to its previous state.

One goal of this new building was to provide the Houston Endowment (HE) with a more prominent civic presence in the city of Houston. The HE works with local organizations to provide funding for programs that improve communities throughout the city. Their previous headquarters, located in a downtown high-rise, proved to be a challenging destination to visit for some of the groups they support. As Kevin Daly, FAIA, explains, “There was a perception that the downtown office tower created an obstacle to access and collaboration.” In response to this, the HE sought a new facility that would provide an added level of convenience and accessibility for the community organizations it serves.

The new building enables visitors who might not feel comfortable navigating the parking garages, tunnels, and elevator lobbies of downtown Houston to feel more welcome. Instead of an anonymous office space within a downtown tower, this new building offers visitors a much more specific, approachable space. Daly notes that rather than “driving downtown, parking, taking escalators and elevators to reach the offices, [HE] wanted a building you could walk right up to.” In response, their headquarters presents a generous transparent entrance to the street, with the canopy providing a bit of shelter before visitors go inside. 

The building’s scalloped facade defines the volume of the interior spaces. The facade pulls back from the southern edge of the slab, creating a back porch that overlooks the park below, with commercial high-rise buildings visible across the bayou. The white columns that line the perimeter of the site extend as close to the property line as possible to maximize the shading capacity of the canopy they support. 

The necessity for shade is not new to contemporary architecture in Houston. The city boasts a legacy of relatively recent buildings by prominent architects that address the need for protection from the sun, starting with Renzo Piano’s designs for the Menil Collection and Cy Twombly Gallery, both located on the Menil campus. Subsequent projects by Thomas Phifer for Rice University, Johnston Marklee’s more recent addition to the Menil campus, and Philip Freelon’s work at Emancipation Park all feature distinct strategies that offer shade and comfort to exterior gathering spaces.  

While each of these precedents considers the need for shade in Houston’s climate, none emphasizes that necessity quite as blatantly as the HE building. Whereas the others could all be identified as buildings with a shading device, the Houston Endowment Headquarters reads as a building and a shading device. The canopy is the building’s most prominent and defining feature, possessing a presence of its own. It is comprised of a combination of photovoltaic panels and perforated metal louvers that protect outdoor spaces as well as the building itself from the sun. 

While not quite indifferent to each other, the canopy and the building feel independent—more like two separate entities engaged in a dialogue than one object with an established hierarchy. Relatively subtle moments define their relationship. The terraces of the building extend outward, providing landing points for the columns that support the canopy and inducing an irregular rhythm in the building’s projections. The volumes of the building, constrained by their own grid, protrude to provide the facade with a sense of depth, but they never leave the shelter of the canopy.

The independence of the canopy from the building below is largely established by its angled grid, which gestures slightly toward the southeast and crosses the orthogonal grid of the building diagonally. The fact that this angle defines the direction of the gabion walls below in addition to the canopy above suggests that the canopy belongs more to the site than it does to the building. The orientations of the two structures relate to their separate roles: The rectangular grid of the building accommodates the project’s internal programmatic needs, and the angular grid responds to the geometry of the site boundaries. 

Perhaps it is their distinction that so successfully animates the space lying between these two elements. The constant datum of the canopy combines with the various depths of the building to produce outdoor spaces with a breadth of scales and conditions. Some terraces that overlook the park provide generous platforms conducive to larger gatherings while others are more suited for a few people to work quietly outdoors. (It’s a shame, though, that these spaces are not public and are only accessible from the building’s interior.) In all cases, the shade provided by the canopy serves to make the spaces below comfortable for a larger portion of the year. 

The most striking moments between the building and canopy occur through the introduction of a third element—sunlight. Externally, light passes through the perforated canopy and falls onto the scalloped facade of the building. The light that lands on the concave panels produces a convex shadow with a soft billowing profile that resembles a child’s drawing of a cloud. That play of light and shadow animates the facade throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky.

Within the core of the building, the roof opens and a clerestory seals the gap between building and canopy, revealing the angled grid of the canopy as it runs counter to the building’s orthogonal interior. These moments, combined with windows positioned along all four sides of the clerestory perimeter, ensure constant illumination from multiple directions, the quality of light changing slowly as time passes. In describing the architects’ intentions for the interior, Ickx explains that “at different moments of the day, light floods the building from different angles creating a differentiation in comfort and environmental qualities.” Those changing qualities experientially connect the office spaces at the building’s core to the constantly changing conditions outside.

The interior spaces contain a relatively simple palette of white painted surfaces interspersed with occasional touches of warm wood from the exposed CLT structure as well as those places where people come into physical contact with the building, like handrails, guardrails, and doors. Throughout the gallery-like spaces, artwork by local artists from the HE’s permanent collection, along with a series of temporary installations, animate the interiors with moments of color. The interiors feel more accessible than institutional, creating a welcoming atmosphere that feels appropriate to the HE’s goals.

During a visit to the space, the HE staff were eager to show off the sustainable aspects of the building. They spoke enthusiastically about the ability to control comfort locally using ceiling fans, advocated for tandem parking used in the garage to be embraced elsewhere in the city, and even offered to show off the collection of pipes filling the geothermal closet. Despite this enthusiasm, the organization is not seeking any formal sustainability certification for the building. While the occupants possess a clear sense of pride in the building’s sustainable qualities, they seem ambivalent about the potential for an additional accolade. 

In a similar way, the Houston Endowment Headquarters embraces this goal of making things better without seeking attention for doing so. While the building and its canopy demonstrate ambition in many ways, formally they are quite modest. Daly notes, “They wanted something that was not a big architectural gesture, and I think that would have been antithetical to their mission.” The canopy isn’t gestural or expressive. It doesn’t fold or ripple or bend. The structure is thin and light, but it doesn’t strive for an impossible overhang. In fact, there are no cantilevered elements at all (and the competition renderings indicate that none were ever intended). It simply rests above the building, supported by columns and beams in a straightforward manner. It is a simple gesture, more about providing shelter than offering shape.

Daly credits the HE for their “effort to make sure the credit for the projects they support goes to the community groups they work with instead of themselves,” and in that sense, he describes them as “having a very long reach and leaving no fingerprints.” The Houston Endowment Headquarters physically embodies that character. While the canopy lacks embellishments, its presence is immense. It paradoxically reaches out broadly to the extent of its site, maximizing the shade it provides, without attempting to draw attention to itself, while hoping to eventually blend into its environment as the living things that surround it have a chance to grow.

Ross Wienert teaches at the University of Houston College of Architecture and Design and practices at CONTENT Architecture in Houston.

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