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Connie Dufner | Photo: Paul Hester | July 14, 2014
A modern house in Upper Kirby aims for the trees—and wins.
The keys to a successful homeowner-architect relationship: Trust, mutual respect and a cherry picker.
The latter, as Houston architect Tom Diehl discovered during the collaboration for a modernist project, was essential to siting the house and creating the treehouse effect the homeowners wanted. The heavy machinery episode, he recalls, was but one example of the enthusiasm, engagement and just plain fun the owners exhibited every step of the way toward building the 4,300-square-foot house in the David Crockett addition of Upper Kirby.
The project, completed in March 2013, started with a pre-existing relationship between Diehl, also on the faculty of the University of Houston’s College of Architecture, and one of the owners, who had lived in a Diehl-designed townhouse nearby.
“What he wanted was outside decks and a treehouse feel that he’d had before,’’ says Diehl. “We were thinking about just recreating the other floor plan, but that didn’t work in this space.”
Adds the homeowner: “For me, it was important that the living and dining areas be on the second floor. I wanted a rooftop deck, lots of windows and lots of light. I didn’t want a big box.”
About the time the conception of the new house began, the homeowner began dating the woman with whom he now shares the house, and the design brainpower expanded. Also a lover of light and windows, she found many places to open up areas previously filled by walls. “Tom kept telling me that something has to support this house,” she jokes. “But he also told us it’s important to love living in your house.” Hence, there are pockets of delight throughout—porthole windows visible from a second floor balcony facing the entrance; a sideways view from kitchen cooktop that includes a view of a Steve Murphy sculpture on a stair landing to the front yard and the street beyond; a dry-erase glass memo board with an eraser pocket discreetly embedded in the kitchen cabinetry; a TV stand on casters that rolls into a closet when the couple entertains.
Both outside and in, the house celebrates the harmony among earth, fire, air and water. It was built to maximize the views of two majestic live oak trees painstakingly preserved by the attorney couple, as well as neighbors’ trees in the mature, four-block subdivision. Inside, walls of windows throughout allow views of trees, rooftops and sky. The only window treatments are honeycomb shades, which the homeowners admit they rarely use. A playful touch in the living room: The drawing of a power line by Randy Twaddle echoes the real thing visible through the trees. While some would consider a powerline an eyesore, to the owners, it is a symbol of living in an urban center, and a reality they own rather than shun. And, it’s quite a conversation starter to boot!
A main deck above the second floor, rooftop deck and two balconies invite visitors outside; the Houston skyline is breathtaking from the breezy rooftop. Water features in the entry, and a backyard meditation garden, create peaceful retreats. Exterior zinc paneling, steel staircase railings and interior supports add metal to the materials mix for a house that is a beautifully layered story of understated, yet thrilling, architectural discovery. There’s even a tongue-in-cheek homage to Frank Lloyd Wright; the vertical steel beams in the kitchen are painted in the architect’s favorite shade of Cherokee Red by Pittsburgh Paints.
A unifying feature of the house is also a practical one, Diehl notes. A center “core” stacks the most functional areas atop one another: master bath on ground floor, kitchen on second floor, mechanical room and decks—all connected by an elevator. “The core is all materially related with greater textures,” he says, such as a China black slate wall in the master bath and a three-story, steel-paneled entry wall. Textured surfaces radiate to sleeker surfaces such as gallery walls and, ultimately, windows.
Furnishings are a mix of modern Italian pieces from Cassina and Cappellini, and vintage midcentury pieces such as the Eames lounger and Corbusier sofa. Yet there’s room for the female homeowner’s inherited Waterford service, Depression era, cobalt blue, glass and traditional Lennox china. Outdoor furnishings are from Richard Schultz’s 1966 Collection by Knoll. Lighting fixtures by Fontana Arte and Prandina are industrial, elegant, graceful and ethereal, yet sturdy enough for the strong architectural statements in the house.
Gray tones throughout provide a unifying color theme and mix with whites and taupes—from polished concrete floors, steel-gridded stair railings and pigmented lacquer cabinetry, to slate walls inside and out, and the hand-troweled, mottled-finish stucco exterior. Woods—including teak, gunmetal ebony veneer, mahogany and rift and quarter-sawn white oak—warm up steel, slate, limestone and glass. Color statements are reserved for the couple’s growing art collection. Outside, a just-started bleeding heart vine with bright pink blooms inches its way up a fence and serves as a reminder that in this house, art created by humans and art created by nature belong together.
Thomas R. Diehl Associates
Contractor and Builder
Mainland Construction, Inc.
The owners, architect and Tokerud & Co.
Cabinets, veneer, pigmented lacquer wall
Thorntree Slate & Marble
Stone throughout house
Audio/video design and installation
Westheimer Plumbing & Hardware
Kitchen and bath fixtures
The Shade Shop
Shades throughout house
Fixtures in living room, dining room and kitchen
Various lighting fixtures in the house
Artwork by Randy Twaddle and Lamar Briggs