Down and Up House

Karen Lantz, AIA, of Lantz Full Circle | Enter Architecture purchased a lot in Houston’s Ranch Estates subdivision in 2002 and then proceeded to think long and hard about the house she wanted to design there for herself and her husband, dentist Andrew Farkas. Ranch Estates is an anomalous subdivision in the museum district: two streets of low-ceilinged postwar ranch houses built in a part of the city that was otherwise developed in the 1920s. 

Since the late 1990s, Ranch Estates has been transformed as new two-story houses, ranging in size from 3,400 sf to 4,700 sf, replaced the original 1,400-sf ranchitos. Many of the replacement houses are bulky, intrusive, and stylistically overdetermined. But Ranch Estates also contains houses designed by Natalye Appel + Associates Architects, Glassman Shoemake Maldonado Architects, Michael Landrum, Strasser Ragni Architects, William T. Cannady, Francois de Menil, and Scott Ballard, who treated the impact of new construction on the shape of the neighborhood as a design consideration. Lantz expanded this consideration to include the environmental impact of designing, building, and occupying the house. As she began to translate these considerations into architectural terms, Lantz drew on her knowledge of domestic architecture in Houston, applying methods and materials that, she observed, made sense there. Lantz commenced design in 2009, started construction in 2010, and moved in just in time to celebrate Thanksgiving 2012 in the almost-completed house. 

Lantz calls her house the Down and Up House, an acknowledgement that it is more complex spatially than Ranch Estates’ original houses. But Lantz did not overlook their virtues. Like the original ranch houses, the Down and Up House expands in plan along its east-west cross axis but is relatively shallow along its north-south axis so that it is penetrable by the prevailing southeast breeze. This was standard planning for Houston houses built prior to the mass adoption of air-conditioning in the 1950s. 

The steel-framed house is extensively glazed along its north (rear) and south (street-facing) sides but minimally glazed on its narrower east and west ends. The low-pitched shed roof expands outward and down to shade south-facing glass during the hottest periods of the year while permitting greater sun penetration in the winter. Because the street front is so transparent, Lantz screened it with layers of fencing that enclose, without totally obscuring, the front courtyard. This layering of scrim-like planes (which extends to the gates closing off the double-car, street-facing carport) allows for a high degree of interior-exterior visibility without making its inhabitants feel like they are living in a fishbowl. 

The staged entry sequence, which begins at the courtyard gate, endows the straightforward house with a degree of perceptual complexity. Lantz repeated this kind of spatial layering on the house’s second-floor level by treating the roof of the carport as a roof terrace and container garden. Her choice of an open carport rather than an enclosed garage contributes to the sense that the house is made up of airy layers rather than solid blocks. The backyard is a long courtyard space. Open to the interior through floor-to-ceiling sliding glass panels, it introduces not only clear reflected light but also a sense of peacefulness and composure.

As a co-founder and former president of Houston Mod, Houston’s modern design nonprofit, Lantz is also attuned to the virtues of mid-20th-century modern houses. This is evident in her use of structural-steel framing for durability as well as modular clarity, and her delight in finish materials that are part of the architecture rather than the decor. Externally, she differentiates between surfacing material (panels of acid-etched steel and of horizontally-corrugated steel siding) and structural supports. The east- and west-end walls and the wall between the carport and the interior staircase are built of blocks of earthy brown Lueders limestone laid up to emphasize their subtle distinctions. 

Interior partitions are primarily of sinker cypress planks. Grey-blue and green marble chips from Marble Falls are embedded in the polished 

terrazzo surface of the basement-, first-, and second-floor slabs. Lantz reserved white for the ceiling. On the first floor, it consists of angled segments of wallboard rather than a flat plane, a technique for acoustically deflecting sound that she observed in the work of the contemporary Spanish architect Francisco Mangado (when Mangado visited the Down and Up House, he conferred his blessing). Air-conditioning diffusers are concealed within these panels. 

Lantz balances her love of materiality with spatial continuity. The ground floor consists of a continuous, high-ceilinged space that transitions from living room, to dining area, to kitchen, each subtly distinguished by the number of structural bays it occupies. The centrally-located dining area is ceiled with backlit panels of gold-colored mica. Modern furniture and a growing collection of contemporary art inhabit these spaces.

Lantz subdivided the second floor with two bedrooms and bathrooms, and the generous roof terrace, which is paved with river rock. Mischievously, she made the approach to the master bedroom contingent on crossing a bridge-like floor of clear, structural glass set atop a steel grid, which is visually open (harrowingly) to the entrance foyer below. Horizontally aligned sliding-sash windows and high-set clerestory windows illuminate second-floor rooms while ensuring privacy. 

The big surprise of the Down and Up House is its “down” component: a 1,180-sf basement and terrace. Here Lantz inserted the mechanical room, a kitchenette/bar, a full bath, a generous seating area, and her husband’s wine storage. A subterranean patio containing a rolled-steel spiral stair to the first floor ensures that the basement is suffused with natural light. The space is also ceiled with suspended backlit panels of mica, giving it an intimate quality. Lantz used LED lighting throughout the house to reduce heat build-up inside.

Lantz also designed the landscape setting of her house. Rather than a creating a lawn, she surfaced the ground plane with a mixture of light green gravel from Marble Falls. Bamboo lines the back fence, and plants requiring minimal watering punctuate the gravel plane between the front courtyard fence and the curb. Inside the front courtyard, Lantz inserted protected beds for growing edible plants, and a raised terrace, which opens off the living room and contains a small lap pool. A water collection system provides irrigation to plants in the courtyard.

As her own client, Lantz was able to pursue preoccupations that a more conventional architect-client relationship might have precluded. She sought to specify U.S.-made products to the maximum extent possible (journalist Mimi Swartz chronicled her efforts in a feature article in The New York Times Magazine in October 2012 entitled “The (Almost) All-American Home,” an indication of Lantz’s partial success). As her own contractor, Lantz was also in a position to insist on a degree of constructional rigor and refinement that someone other than an architect might not value as highly. And as with the sustainable practices and technologies she incorporated, the experience of designing and building her own house enabled Lantz to teach herself about what it costs, financially and emotionally, to produce the kind of architecture that you hope your clients are willing to pay for. 

The paradox of exerting one’s self to achieve a certain standard of architectural precision and subtlety is that the final product, if successful, reflects none of the agony this entails. The Down and Up House instead is a serene and happy space, where the couple generously dispenses hospitality to friends, visiting architectural celebrities, and admiring members of art and design organizations. The clarity, simplicity, openness, and warmth of the Down and Up House dissolve anguish and struggle as effortlessly as the serrated ceiling dissolves noisy reverberation. It is left up to the glass floor to playfully impart an inkling of the turmoil that insisting on the integrity of an idea inexorably produces. 

Stephen Fox is a fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas and a contributing editor of TA. 

Published in Texas Architect July/August 2013.