written by:
photos by:
January 16, 2009
Originally published in The New American Home
In Houston, where bigger means better and suburbanites in SUVs dominate the highways, architects Dawn Finley and Mark Wamble are anomalies: Their domestic lives fit into 1,200 square feet, and their commute to work is but a walk downstairs.
The house is sheltered from the speeding traffic on Highway 59 by a fortress of trees.
The house is sheltered from the speeding traffic on Highway 59 by a fortress of trees.
Photo by 
1 / 12
Architects Dawn Finley and Mark Wamble's 1,200-square-foot house in Houston, Texas, is clad in corrugated metal and contains their five-person firm, Interloop—Architecture.
Architects Dawn Finley and Mark Wamble's 1,200-square-foot house in Houston, Texas, is clad in corrugated metal and contains their five-person firm, Interloop—Architecture.
Photo by 
2 / 12
Angus opts to sleep on top of the bed rather than beneath it.
Angus opts to sleep on top of the bed rather than beneath it.
Photo by 
3 / 12
Leroy tools around on his mini turbo tractor while munching on a gigantic cookie; his parents look on with envy.
Leroy tools around on his mini turbo tractor while munching on a gigantic cookie; his parents look on with envy.
Photo by 
4 / 12
The kitchen is IKEA; the floors, like those in the bathroom, are Brazilian slate.
The kitchen is IKEA; the floors, like those in the bathroom, are Brazilian slate.
Photo by 
5 / 12
Leroy with his menagerie and the highway-spanning bridge beyond.
Leroy with his menagerie and the highway-spanning bridge beyond.
Photo by 
6 / 12
A work station in the couple's office.
A work station in the couple's office.
Photo by 
7 / 12
The office windows look onto the brick wall that buffers the property from the highway beyond.
The office windows look onto the brick wall that buffers the property from the highway beyond.
Photo by 
8 / 12
Finley rifles through one of the closets at the end of the living space next to the kitchen. The water-cut laundry-room doors and guardrail add a Houstonian touch to the otherwise spartan décor.
Finley rifles through one of the closets at the end of the living space next to the kitchen. The water-cut laundry-room doors and guardrail add a Houstonian touch to the otherwise spartan décor.
Photo by 
9 / 12
Custom exit sign are seen in the office.
Custom exit sign are seen in the office.
Photo by 
10 / 12
Angus, the family's Llewellyn Setter, sleeps in the master bedroom.
Photo by 
11 / 12
12 / 12
The house is sheltered from the speeding traffic on Highway 59 by a fortress of trees.
The house is sheltered from the speeding traffic on Highway 59 by a fortress of trees.
Project 
Finley-Wamble House

In Houston, where bigger means better and suburbanites in SUVs dominate the highways, architects Dawn Finley and Mark Wamble are anomalies: Their domestic lives fit into 1,200 square feet, and their commute to work is but a walk downstairs.

“We like the challenge of having a big life in a small house,” says Wamble, “getting rid of what we don’t need.”

The couple spend most of their professional lives devising public projects and institutional spaces or cultivating heady architectural theories—both teach design at Rice School of Architecture, where they met—but had never designed a residence before their own. They wanted an unadorned and uncomplicated house, a reaction to the chaotic sprawl of the city around them. The result is a two-story rectangular box covered in corrugated metal that is a home upstairs and an office for their five-person design firm, Interloop—Architecture, below. At times, it’s both on each floor. “We wanted to be above, separate from the work space, but sometimes they overlap,” Finley says. “We have open acoustics. There are no secrets here.”

After searching for a lot for two years, the couple settled on one at the edge of the city’s museum district, wedged up against some trees with Highway 59 just beyond. While traffic-choked urban arteries don’t always make great neighbors, particularly in a city that’s notoriously congested, Finley and Wamble saw potential advantages. They oriented the 48-by-24-foot structure to maximize the views of the highway behind the house and some massive live oak trees in front. “The highway, the power lines, the bridge—some people would consider eyesores,” Wamble notes. “We like them.” 

The placement has had some unexpected benefits: A breeze from the highway blows through the house, cutting the steamy Gulf Coast heat, and sometimes the traffic helps them put their three-year-old son, Leroy, to bed. “We talk about the trucks going by,” Finley says. “It’s a way to get him to sleep.”

Finley and Wamble are known for their ingenious fabrications and elegant design solutions. In their design for the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, which features work by James Turrell, they built a contextually sympathetic and handicap-accessible bench—out of nearly 500 pounds of stone—that could fold and unfold with the touch of a hand. But for their house, they kept the plans simple and easy to execute. “This was a budget-driven project, and we tried to make the detailing as simple as possible,” Wamble says, noting that most everything in the house was built with standard construction methods. “We were aware of what it would mean if we got obsessive about the details, so we made it very straightforward for the builders.”

The design of the house is based on four-by-eight sheets of plywood, Wamble explains, which meant there was very little cutting and a very high yield. “Through the whole construction phase, we hauled off trash only three times, which is ridiculous,” he notes. The simplicity of the design and the couple’s choice of materials—sanded and stained structural pine decking for the floors, IKEA cabinets in the kitchen—kept the cost of the house at about $140 a square foot, in an area where $200 is more typical.

Houston, with its aerospace and oil-services industries, has a ready population of high-tech fabricators, so when Finley and Wamble decided to indulge in just a couple of details, they turned, says Wamble, to their “little black book of super-skilled companies that don’t normally do architecturally oriented projects but can.”

The metal doors to the laundry closet, decorated with water-cut holes, and the guardrail on the stairs were fashioned by a company that makes offshore drilling equipment. “Obviously they were overkill,” Wamble says. “But they’re here, so we took advantage of them.” Finley and Wamble appreciate this kind of work: In addition to their office downstairs, they have a metal shop about a mile away where they build furniture and other interior pieces, such as custom-made lighted exit signs. “Mark used to take cars apart in high school,” Finley explains. “He’s interested in how machines work.”

The corrugated-metal siding of the house bestows another Houstonian touch. The material is popular in the area because it won’t get moldy and rot in the swampy air, and because it’s easy to maintain. But it’s also a local resource that evokes the shotgun shacks and warehouses of the city’s pre–oil boom past. “This is the metal building capital of the country,” Finley says. “So this material is coming off the coil in Houston.”

Though much of Finley and Wamble’s work these days focuses on larger projects, they have designed four houses since their own, and have also contemplated solutions to meet the city’s need for low-income housing. When invited by a local arts organization to design an affordable house—with an implausible price tag of $50,000—the couple instead conceived of a “high-performance housing delivery platform,” known as the KLIPHouse, which, in theory, is a prefabricated adaptable foundation that allows owners to add and subtract commercially made components.

Yet, despite their brainy, sometimes highly conceptual work, even Finley and Wamble struggled with something as simple as the view from their very straightforward house. “We spent the most time on the windows because we didn’t add anything else,” explains Wamble.

Ultimately, they decided on placing two 11-by-5-foot windows plus one 8-by-5-foot window along the 48-foot living space, which runs the length of the house upstairs. The windows frame the gnarled, winding limbs of the live oaks outside and give the effect of sitting in some kind of Tolkienesque tree canopy. On the highway side of the house, eucalyptus trees and passing headlights cast shadows on the walls in the two bedrooms. In Leroy’s bedroom a menagerie of plastic animals perched on the windowsill is projected into a shadowy eucalyptus jungle. “The trees make these shadows, and with the light, you get this beautiful detail,” Finley explains.

The view from the windows also puts the house in its context, underscoring its distinction. “The house kind of looks like German workers’ housing from the ’30s,” Wamble jokes. “But that wasn’t the design objective.” Beyond the front yard with its lawn and grid of prairie grasses, more traditional houses, in a smattering of styles, line the street. And beyond them, though out of view, lies the aesthetically hectic and random city, with all of its skyscrapers and Texas bigness.

Even Finley and Wamble— neither of whom are Texas-born (though Wamble was Texas-bred)—acknowledge they might need more space one day. The house is structured for a third story, and the lot could accommodate another building. But for now their compact home and workspace work perfectly in their non-Texan scale, and Finley, especially, is reluctant to even think about expanding. “If it got any bigger, we might ruin it,” she says. “I love it the way it is.”

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016
distant structure lakeside prefab norway facade stones green roof
Dwell has traveled all over the world, from Tasmania to Indonesia, to report on modern houses.
February 05, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment master bedroom atrium
Get ready for a weekend of rest with these sleepy, little cocoons.
February 05, 2016
lamp show 99 cent plus gallery 0
At Brooklyn's 99¢ Plus gallery, 30 artists and designers re-imagine the lamp in an illuminating light show.
February 04, 2016
Hidden storage stairwell with raw brass hardware
Having ample space to stow items is a daily struggle—peep these modern homes for some ideas on maximizing your square footage.
February 04, 2016
modern fairhaven beach house blackbutt eucalyptus living room Patricia Urquiola sofa
Whether it's along a coast in Australia or the French Alps, wood provides a natural touch in these interiors.
February 04, 2016
Glass and steel sculpture in Printemps store of Paris.
In the Paris' venerable Printemps department store, two Toronto-based firms were tasked with enlivening a new atrium and creating a unique experience for visitors. YabuPushelberg, partnering with UUfie, designed this stunning steel "sail" embedded with vibrant dichroic glass.
February 04, 2016
Monochromatic Master Bedroom in Copenhagen Townhouse
Whether it's to maximize limited light or create a soothing interior, these five projects go white in a big way.
February 04, 2016
EQ3 Assembly quilt by Kenneth LaVallee
The new Assembly collection from EQ3 celebrates up-and-coming figures in Canadian design. Discover this newly appointed class, which debuted at Toronto's Interior Design Show, here.
February 03, 2016
The Greenhouses of Half Moon Bay
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 03, 2016
Deck of Australian addition to Edwardian home.
A 1,500-square-foot home in Melbourne welcomes a modern black and white kitchen, dining, and living area.
February 03, 2016
open plan concrete home in japan
Embracing the organic, imperfect material, these raw concrete surfaces are a step up from exposed brick.
February 03, 2016
Renovated DC Row House loft space with Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair.
The classic designer's signature and comfortable forms continue to be popular in homes today.
February 03, 2016
Zinc-roofed cabin France.
An architect builds an energy-efficient home near one of France’s most popular pilgrimage sites.
February 03, 2016
1973 Palm Springs home
Made for casual design enthusiasts and Palm Springs connoisseurs alike, Unseen Midcentury Desert Modern offers a peek into 51 buildings—some not open to the public—in that Southern California mecca of modernism. Begun in 2008 by photographer Dan Chavkin, the book is set for release this February 9th and will be available on Amazon and at multiple venues of Modernism Week in Palm Springs, February 11 - 21. Here we preview some of its images.
February 03, 2016
Millennial concept home with an outdoor living area
A concept home aims to reflect the requests of the Millennial market.
February 03, 2016
The two twelve-by-sixteen-foot bedrooms, directly above a comparable pair on the first floor, feature a glass transom that follows the pitch of the roof. “The stair and railings were very simple,” Depardon observes. “We added a bit of design, with panels
Skylights needn't be simple overhead daylighting; sometimes they can truly define a room.
February 03, 2016
Modern small space Rhode Island cottage with landscaping and cedar cladding
Surrounded by nature, these cottages are tranquil retreats from the city.
February 03, 2016
The couple kept original touches, including the arch.
Historic archways belie these contemporary homes with physical reminders of each structure's storied past.
February 03, 2016
modern guesthouse in norway with angular facade and cutaway patio with spruce cladding and ikea chair
These houses make room for nature, not the other way around.
February 02, 2016
Modern kitchen with yellow sectioned walls and monochrome appliances
Whether it's a splash of color or bold strokes, this collection of interiors brightens up these homes.
February 02, 2016
Rust-washed concrete wall in Moscow apartment renovation.
This 590-square-foot apartment was stripped down to admit sunlight and dramatically reveal forgotten surfaces.
February 02, 2016
Nendo's collection of objects inspired by Star Wars
In a galaxy not so far away, Japanese studio Nendo has released a versatile collection of objects inspired by classic Star Wars characters.
February 02, 2016
Monti catered to his mother’s love of cooking by giving her ample storage areas along the 70-foot long walnut wall-slash-cabinet. The refrigerator, kitchen items and other goods easily disappear into the wall when not in use. The nonporous, stain-, scratc
Sometimes the earthy colors and vivid grain of a wood like walnut is all you need to make a space.
February 02, 2016
renovated modern home in Austin interior kitchen
From California to Connecticut, these midcentury interiors still shine through thanks to the careful attention of architects and residents alike.
February 02, 2016
Outdoor dining area at a Saigon home.
A city home honors the local culture with communal outdoor space and reclaimed materials.
February 02, 2016