written by:
photos by:
January 17, 2011
Originally published in Rethink Recycling

The first time Houston-based architectural designer Barbara Hill set foot inside what would become her future second house, a 100-year-old adobe in Marfa, Texas, she found a cramped warren of rooms filled to the brim with trash. The structure, originally built as a private dance hall, had lived through many incarnations, from a grocery and candy store to, more recently, a haven for detritus. Undaunted, Hill purchased the property and spent the next year and a half transforming the derelict building into a sophisticated and slightly rough-around-the-edges retreat. Here she shares the story of a true West Texas revival.

Designer Barbara Hill in front of her weekend home
Designer Barbara Hill, in front of her recently renovated weekend house in Marfa, Texas. A series of Galvalume roofing panels clad the underside of the eaves.
Photo by 
1 / 10
The seating area includes an extra-long sofa by Piero Lissoni, and a leather armchair designed by Alfredo Häberli for Moroso. The Twiggy lamp is from West Elm.
The seating area includes an extra-long sofa by Piero Lissoni, and a leather armchair designed by Alfredo Häberli for Moroso. The Twiggy lamp is from West Elm.
Photo by 
2 / 10
Designer Barbara Hill's bedroom
In the bedroom, an improbably placed tub is situated in front of two closets that can easily be maneuvered thanks to skateboard wheels affixed to the underside.
Photo by 
3 / 10
Dining room with antique table
Lacquered chairs from Holland cut a low profile next to the dining table, a French antique found at Installations Antiques in Houston. "I don't like anything to match too much," says Hill.
Photo by 
4 / 10
Designer Barbara Hill reading
A voracious reader, Hill kicks back in a Hans Wegner chair topped with a shaggy throw made from the wool of a longhair sheep.
Photo by 
5 / 10
Modern kitchen with salvaged sink
In the kitchen, Make Tacos Not War, by San Antonio-based artist Alejandro Diaz, is mounted over a putty-colored sink Hill Salvaged from a demolition yard.
Photo by 
6 / 10
Outdoor sculptural gas fire pit
Hill worked with metal artist and designer George Sacaris to create a sculptural gas fire pit in her backyard. Using repurposed pipes uncovered during the renovation, Sacaris welded them together in a vertical formation. When the fire is flickering, it engulfs the sculpture and adds another note of drama to the outdoor area.
Photo by 
7 / 10
Designer Barbara Hill's bathroom with vanity countertop
Hill, a vocal proponent of "distressed" surfaces, had a large slab of gray marble installed in her bathroom as a vanity countertop. Once it was in place, though, she found it too slick for her liking. Rather than return it, she flipped the piece upside down to display the underside, warts and all.
Photo by 
8 / 10
Modern bathroom with salvaged privacy screen
Seeking a large-scale artwork that could also act as a privacy screen for her bedroom, Hill hung the vintage hotel sign she scored at Installations Antiques in Houston on a sliding track. When she wants to block the view from the backyard, she simply slides the sign along its blackened-steel track into place in front of her doorway.
Photo by 
9 / 10
Barbara Hill renovation bathroom
Hill's custom closets do double duty as both clothing receptacles and movable partitions, thanks to skateboard wheels affixed to their bases. Substantial enough to create a visual barrier but translucent to allow light through. the closets are backed by panels of formerly glossy white Plexiglas that Hill asked Sacaris to rough up with a piece of sandpaper.
Photo by 
10 / 10
Designer Barbara Hill in front of her weekend home
Designer Barbara Hill, in front of her recently renovated weekend house in Marfa, Texas. A series of Galvalume roofing panels clad the underside of the eaves.
Project 
Hill Residence Marfa
Architect 

It may be an old saw, but gutting and renovating an old building is like opening a can of worms—there's always much more beneath the surface than you ever bargained for. But I think that if you want to do something right, you have to be unafraid to do everything. Fortunately I have X-ray vision: I can see right through debris. I call it my "design disease."

The first step was cleaning the place out. I filled eight huge dumpsters and many more flatbed trailers with trash and construction scrap. In doing so I realized that everything that contributed to the cramped feeling, from the ten-foot ceiling to a bunch of awful temporary walls, could be taken out. I became obsessed with taking the building to what it once was—-essentially one large room. Plus, I hate walls and an open living space is the next best thing to being outside.

I tried to save the floorboards, but the planks were rotten due to leaky plumbing, a roof that was in bad shape, and years of standing water. We dug them all out and in the process found several pits under the house—which suggested that the building's adobe was sourced from the site itself. This delighted me. There's something comforting about being inside a house made of mud. In addition to the natural insulation from weather and noise, there's always a slight scent of the earth in the air. I find it calming.

Removing the hideous walls wasn't a problem, but stabilizing the interior to allow for a high ceiling was certainly a challenge. And high is never high enough for me. It was immediately obvious that I would need to call upon a structural engineer, so I found Dan Ray, who knows how to work with adobe. Dan suggested immense steel beams to shore up the tension. While adobe can withstand enormous pressure from top to bottom, it will buckle if the pressure comes in from the sides.

Since I went with birch plywood for the flooring—I felt it referenced the building's past—I thought I'd cover the pitched part of the ceiling with it as well. I like the look and the continuity; it unifies the space and complements the blackened steel.

It turned out to be cost-prohibitive to create high ceilings throughout, so I ended up with one big, soaring central space flanked by two areas with lower ten-foot ceilings. In the end, it was a good thing, because the difference in height helps to define clear eating and sleeping zones. I placed the kitchen along the length of the street-facing wall. I don't cook a lot in Marfa—in fact, I use the dishwasher as a drying rack most of the time—so I kept it simple. I found a great old putty-colored sink at a demolition yard and saved my splurge for a 13-foot-long French table with a base that looks like steel to match the beams overhead.

Now, I realize that having a bedroom and bathtub in the middle of an open space isn't for everyone, but the romance of it appeals to me. I get so much joy waking up, because the first thing I see from my bed is this trough-shaped bathtub that reminds me of a cowboy boot. For times when I need a little privacy, I deigned two closets atop skateboard wheels so I can move them as I please and create a partition from the seating area.

Another element I love is the old sign, salvaged from Marfa's Crews Hotel, now part of the Judd Foundation. I found it in a shop in Houston; actually, I guarantee the guy pulled it out of a trash pile and marked it up something awful—but I had to have it. The sign isn't just for looks; it's mounted on a sliding steel armature, so I can position it over the doorway and block the view from the backyard. Balancing openness with options for concealment is aways smart.

The outdoor area was very important to me—the light in Marfa is soft and wonderful, and I knew I'd be spending a lot of time outside. I had the idea of a courtyard space build around a central fire pit, so I asked George Sacaris, a designer, to create a sculpture in the shape of a campfire using  some pipes unearthed during the renovation. Weeds had overtaken the entire site, so I tore up everything and replaced it with native plantings like sage, yucca, and great white cactus. I paved the walkway with old bricks from El Paso and found some great rusty steel plates from the railroad to use for additional footing in the yard. People are always poking their heads in, complimenting me on the colors and the symmetry, which is nice. This is a real community, where neighbors and looky-loos are always welcome to peek over the fence. It's part of the reason why I love it so much here.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

Modern prefab summer home in Madeline Island, Wisconsin
Prefab construction simplified the building process of this northern Wisconsin summer home, where all materials required ferrying across Lake Superior.
May 30, 2016
This unrealized plan reimagined the city’s downtown and included a large green area next to the capitol building and paths to bring people to the Delaware River
In her new book, Wild by Design, Margie Ruddick shows us how to get closer to nature.
May 30, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent joa herrenknecht berlin cstudio joa herrenknecht berlin loftsw livingr02 studiojoaherrenknecht 2015
Size doesn't intimidate this ambitious designer.
May 30, 2016
modern fjallbacka sweden pine boxes vacation facade
Architect Gert Wingårdh creates a passionately outfitted vacation home for two midcentury furniture dealers on the western coast of Sweden.
May 29, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent driaan claassen cape town south africa ccourtesy of driaan claasen dualpage82
Driaan Claassen combines a variety of materials and a love of history to create distinct objects.
May 29, 2016
energy star dirk wynants extremis poperinge beligium sustainable farmhouse facade
The owner of an outdoor furniture company updates a 19th-century farmhouse.
May 29, 2016
Modern small sustainable weekend home with flat roof
Two linked 1,000-square-foot pavilions are greater than a sum of their parts.
May 28, 2016
inside out los angeles home barbara bestor hollywood outdoor facade charcoal paint pool
Architect Barbara Bestor transforms a Hollywood Hills home by opening up its interior to the site’s dramatic backyard topography.
May 28, 2016
right of laneway vancouver garden sliding glass western window systems door outdoor
A Vancouver garden blossoms alongside fresh development.
May 28, 2016
20160229 dgd highhouse 1777 1024x683
Two toddlers, a pup, and their parents fit onto a 16.5-foot-wide plot in an inner suburb of Melbourne.
May 27, 2016
rec
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
May 27, 2016
capitol gains seattle multifamily living dining room wassily chair chaise le corbusier cb2
Two Seattle architects design and build a dynamic multifamily structure on a formerly vacant lot.
May 27, 2016
modern beach house thatch roof living dining bar cart
By eliminating walls and incorporating a series of interior gardens, architect José Roberto Paredes creates an eclectic and inspired El Salvador beach house.
May 27, 2016
7
A two-story Eichler in San Francisco gets a freshening up.
May 27, 2016
Bathyard renovation in Madrid, Spain
In Madrid, Spain, Husos Architects renovate a turn-of-the-20th-century apartment for a client with dual passions: her houseplants and a nice, long bath.
May 26, 2016
Exterior of Huneeus/Sugar Bowl Home.
San Francisco–based designer Maca Huneeus created her family’s weekend retreat near Lake Tahoe with a relaxed, sophisticated sensibility.
May 26, 2016
starting over sturgeon bay facade tongue and groove new growth cypress  0
After a devastating fire, architect David Salmela designs a house to replace a beloved lakeside retreat in Wisconsin.
May 26, 2016
Modern home with brick base and cedar rain screen on top level
An architect reimagines an outdated brick garage by designing a graceful new family home atop its foundation.
May 26, 2016
sardenya lr 7
A renovation brings light and order to a Spanish flat, maintaining its standout ceilings.
May 25, 2016
pow 5 25 1
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most captivating design and architecture shots of the week.
May 25, 2016
young guns 2016 emerging talent thom fougere winnipeg canada cthom fougere studio thom fougere saddle chair 2
Designer Thom Fougere plays with scale and typology to create playful furniture.
May 25, 2016
prs my16 0067 v001 1
In the worlds of architecture and design, we’re always looking for the best ways of supporting sustainable building practices. This awareness doesn’t have to stop at our driveways but rather, it can extend to the cars we choose to take us to the places we go each day. With Toyota’s 2016 Prius, the daily task of getting from point A to point B can now be experienced with a new level of efficiency, safety, and style.
May 25, 2016
mountfordarchitects western australia
On a narrow site in Western Australia, Mountford Architects makes the most of a tight spot—with an eye to the future.
May 25, 2016
San Francisco living room with Wassily chairs
Materials and furniture transformed the layout of this San Francisco house, without the need for dramatic structural intervention.
May 24, 2016
shiver me timbers tallow wood kitchen
A pair of married architects put their exacting taste to work on their own family escape in the Australian bush.
May 24, 2016
in the balance small space massachusetts cantilevered cabin glass facade
When nature laid down a boulder of a design challenge in the Massachusetts mountains, an architect’s solution elevated the project to new heights.
May 24, 2016
Wooden Walkways
A home in Ontario, Canada, demonstrates how factory-built housing can be as site sensitive as traditional construction.
May 24, 2016
15 icff 5
From Corian furniture to immersive installations, here are some of our favorite designs we saw at the 2016 shows.
May 24, 2016
gpphoto44
A home and community celebrate natural remove in unison.
May 24, 2016
With our annual issue devoted to the outdoors on newsstands, we did a lap of Instagram for some extra inspiration.
May 23, 2016