Domestic Wolf

Most custom homes are eccentric in one fashion or another, tailored as they are to one person’s or one family’s specific requirements. Casa Lobo, a new house designed by Content Architecture in Houston’s East End, takes that notion to the extreme. 

The owner, Erick Calderon, met the architects — Jesse Hager, AIA, and Heather Rowell, Assoc. AIA — through his tile importing company, La Nova. They became friendly, and when Calderon purchased a vacant lot off of Navigation Boulevard just east of downtown, where he planned to build his ideal abode, he called on Content. 

Tile importing is his business, but Calderon’s passions are diverse. He wanted his new house to be the perfect place in which to explore them. His first love at the time Content began its design process was racing and fixing BMW 2-Series cars. He envisioned an ideal space where he and his buddies could work on their vehicles both indoors and outdoors. He imagined being able to park at least five BMWs on the property, in various states of repair, at any given time. It was to be, in the words of one wry observer during a recent site visit, his “bro hangout.”

Calderon’s other passion is art. His organization, Light Art Interactive, develops “products and projects that explore how humans interact with color and light,” according to the website. He needed a studio space where he could build and program his creations, which include color-changing lamps and sculptures that interact with sound and other environmental factors, but also flower vases and objets d’art he calls Up Blocks — chromatic compositions of hand-painted, 3-D printed blocks. 

Calderon needed all of this on a tight budget. 

Content got to work producing a variety of schemes, some of them quite conventional, before arriving at an idea that stuck. The site is a 50-ft-wide by 100-ft-deep lot in a residential neighborhood near an industrial zone of metal buildings. Responding to the industrial context, the team designed a 1,600-sf steel-structured, metal building (1,300-sf inside the frame). They oriented the rectangular volume along the length of the site and lifted it on stilts with all of the living spaces — bedroom, studio, combined kitchen/living room — on the upper level. The ground level has a large, covered patio, where cars can be parked and worked on away from Houston’s frequent rain showers, and a more conventional two-car garage with a partial double-height ceiling reaching into the upper level — high enough to accommodate a hydraulic automobile lift. Between the garage and the patio is a flat-roofed CMU stair tower that rises above the single-slope roof of the elevated metal building.

The only air-conditioned spaces in the house are the living areas on the second floor; the garage and the stair tower are naturally ventilated. 

The roof of the tower is lifted; its walls are punctured with rectangular openings — offering some small-scale Piranesi-like views — and, in the initial concept, the rollup door of the garage featured perforations, allowing natural ventilation of these spaces courtesy of the chimney effect. The lifted tower roof also admits daylight, making what could have been a static, claustrophobic cell into a dynamic environment activated by exterior conditions. “It’s not what everyone would want, but Erick likes being able to step out into this space and experience the weather,” says Hager. 

Inside, the architectural approach is minimal, economical. The flooring is 4-ft-by-4-ft dark gray tiles — supplied by Nova, of course. The walls are white-painted sheetrock. The ceiling follows the slope of the roof in the master bedroom and living room, but elsewhere the architects dropped flat ceilings of various heights relative to the size of the room. The ceiling of the studio/guest room is 10-ft-high, in the utility room and bathrooms they are 9-ft-high, and at the entry it’s 8-ft-high. The deep cutouts of the windows are splayed to frame views of surrounding landmarks: a tree on the corner, the plaza on Navigation, Minute Maid Park and the downtown skyline. 

The bedroom is directly above the garage. It has an interior window that allows Calderon to gaze at his autos without leaving the comforts of his chamber — or what was to be his chamber. Halfway through construction, he met a girl at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, fell in love, and married her. The appearance on the scene of Mara McCumber Calderon, and the baby that she is soon to birth, had its effect on the “bro hangout” and Calderon’s lifestyle. Gone for the expectant family man are the days of racing and all-night light-experience programming sessions. Here are the days of domesticity. The bedroom closet had to be increased in size to accommodate Mara’s clothes, eating up space that would have accommodated the hydraulic car lift. A bathtub was added to the spare bathroom. And the studio, which, as of this writing, is still home to two MakerBot 3-D printers, is soon to be the baby’s room.

Casa Lobo (a name chosen by Calderon) is indeed eccentric. Who knows how long it will last? As is, it embodies the awkward transition period between man-child and grownup. Who will the Calderons be in five years? Whoever they are, Content will be able to find an architectural expression for them: “We pride ourselves in the diversity of our work,” says Hager. “They’re all different. We don’t have a signature style. We never know where we’re going to end up when we start.”

Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect. 

Originally published in the November/December 2015 issue of Texas Architect.