A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home

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By Helen Thompson / Published by Dwell
Finding inspiration in the work of Tadao Ando, a Houston couple designs the concrete house of their dreams.

"Concrete has always had a mystical hold on architects," says designer Christopher Robertson. Visionaries such as Le Corbusier, who used concrete in many of his 75 projects, loved this basic material. Robertson and his wife, Vivi Nguyen-Robertson, his partner at Robertson Design, were also enamored with the amalgam of sand, gravel, cement, and water, and the newlyweds dreamed of using it for their own house. "We just couldn’t wrap our heads around the cost," Christopher says, referring to the labor-intensive
poured-in-place procedure he prefers. "It’s way more expensive than any other option we considered." 

A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 1 of 17 - A pivoting door, also made of larch, provides a shortcut to enter the structure as an alternative to the main courtyard entrance.

A pivoting door, also made of larch, provides a shortcut to enter the structure as an alternative to the main courtyard entrance.

An eye-opening trip to Naoshima, Japan, convinced the Robertsons to find a way to build their dream. On the 3.15-square-mile island, they visited the Benesse House Museum and the Chichu Art Museum, a series of square, rectangular, and triangular volumes  embedded in a hillside, which house installations by James Turrell and Walter De Maria, as well as paintings by Claude Monet. Both museums were designed by architect Tadao Ando and are composed of concrete, a signature material that Ando has used to rich and evocative effect. The Robertsons were taken with the rawness and mystery of the spaces. "We decided ‘whatever it takes’ after seeing those buildings," says Christopher. 

A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 2 of 17 - It took six weeks to build the formwork for the poured-concrete walls that make up the first floor. Inthe kitchen the floors are raw European white oak, the countertops are Capolavoro granite with a leather finish by Antolini, and the natural oak cabinets are by Varenna.

It took six weeks to build the formwork for the poured-concrete walls that make up the first floor. Inthe kitchen the floors are raw European white oak, the countertops are Capolavoro granite with a leather finish by Antolini, and the natural oak cabinets are by Varenna.

The couple’s vow had immediate consequences. "We’d already started designing a house," says Vivi, "but we started over." Into the trash went plans for a brick residence, which the couple had already revised five times. With their similar tastes, they design as a team, dividing the work equally; for their new house those tasks included interior and landscape design, too. 

A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 3 of 17 - Designers Christopher Robertson and Vivi Nguyen-Robertson conceived their house as an unfolding sequence of simple geometric forms: a low concrete wall, a concrete cube, and a box clad in Siberian larch.

Designers Christopher Robertson and Vivi Nguyen-Robertson conceived their house as an unfolding sequence of simple geometric forms: a low concrete wall, a concrete cube, and a box clad in Siberian larch.

A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 4 of 17 - The metal Grillage chair on the deck is by François Azambourg for Ligne Roset.

The metal Grillage chair on the deck is by François Azambourg for Ligne Roset.

The Robertsons’ new 2,900-square-foot house is a wooden box that sits on top of a concrete box, with a concrete wall wrapping around it. Inside, the boxiness vanishes and the house resolves into two complementary halves. On one side, a long chute consisting of an interior courtyard, a dining room, Vivi’s office, and the kitchen and living spaces stretches from front to back. On the other side, a white central staircase leads to a split-level landing the Robertsons call "the reading room." "We needed a place to hang out and for the kids to read," explains Vivi. When it’s time to head to bed, the master suite is in one direction; in the other, two bedrooms are connected by a bath. One bedroom is currently a nursery for the Robertsons’ new son; Christopher’s two children from a previous marriage share the other bedroom when they visit. 

A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 5 of 17 - Sliding doors from Western Window Systems connect the living room and the deck, which is made of pressure-treated pine planks surrounding a black gravel pit.

Sliding doors from Western Window Systems connect the living room and the deck, which is made of pressure-treated pine planks surrounding a black gravel pit.

The living space had to embrace many functions, including the comings and goings of a dog and trike-riding children whose favorite route includes the deck beyond the living room. The choice of concrete was a practical decision as well as an aesthetic one—it can take a lot of abuse. "We beat things up pretty easily," says Vivi. The Robertsons also opted for other durable materials, such as Siberian larch for the ceilings and Austrian white oak for the floors. They deliberately left the wood in its raw state to allow for natural aging, which includes exposing flaws, now and in the future. "If we scratch or stain the floor," notes Vivi, "we just sand it."

A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 6 of 17 - The living room features a sofa from Roche Bobois, Metropolitan armchairs by Jeffrey Bernett for B&B Italia, and a Good Morning table in copper and Anytime table in anthracite frosted glass from Ligne Roset. The rug is by Tissage.

The living room features a sofa from Roche Bobois, Metropolitan armchairs by Jeffrey Bernett for B&B Italia, and a Good Morning table in copper and Anytime table in anthracite frosted glass from Ligne Roset. The rug is by Tissage.


A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 7 of 17 - In the entryway, a Tati lamp by Ferruccio Laviani for Kartell sits on a shelf Christopher made from kitchen cabinetry scraps.

In the entryway, a Tati lamp by Ferruccio Laviani for Kartell sits on a shelf Christopher made from kitchen cabinetry scraps.

Imperfection is a driving force in this house, it turns out. "Concrete is uncontrollable," Christopher notes—a fact he was already well aware of. "You can’t guarantee the results." The day Christopher and his crew pulled off the framework to reveal the house’s concrete walls, what he saw was at first disappointing. "There were a few hickies," he says. Vivi could also see that one of the walls was shinier than the other. 

A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 8 of 17 - Located off of the kitchen, Vivi’s office disappears behind sliding walls covered in black chalkboard paint from Behr.

Located off of the kitchen, Vivi’s office disappears behind sliding walls covered in black chalkboard paint from Behr.

But that’s the whole point. "The concrete walls will only get prettier—the imperfections are like a watercolor," Vivi says. The Japanese have a name for it: wabi-sabi, an aesthetic that accepts transience and the blemishes that impermanence brings. "We don’t have views of mountains or sea here," says Vivi about Houston, "so we have created what we want to look at." It’s a microview that’s always evolving. "That’s why we love concrete," adds Christopher. "It’s a live material and you have to live with the imperfections. They add so much."

A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 9 of 17 - Awaiting the birth of the couple’s son, Vivi relaxes in a built-in reading nook in the library.

Awaiting the birth of the couple’s son, Vivi relaxes in a built-in reading nook in the library.


A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 10 of 17 - White-oak stairs connect the first-floor living spaces with the upstairs sleeping areas.

White-oak stairs connect the first-floor living spaces with the upstairs sleeping areas.

A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 11 of 17 - The master bath is clad in Bianco Venatino marble. The tub is by ADM; the showerhead is by Hansgrohe.

The master bath is clad in Bianco Venatino marble. The tub is by ADM; the showerhead is by Hansgrohe.

A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 12 of 17 - The low windows in the master bedroom focus the view on the backyard, not the neighbors. Christopher designed the solid poplar platform bed.

The low windows in the master bedroom focus the view on the backyard, not the neighbors. Christopher designed the solid poplar platform bed.

A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 13 of 17 - "We talked about creating a sense of mystery when [guests] walked in from the street," says Christopher. A gate swings open on a steel bar-stock frame to reveal a courtyard and the dining room beyond.

"We talked about creating a sense of mystery when [guests] walked in from the street," says Christopher. A gate swings open on a steel bar-stock frame to reveal a courtyard and the dining room beyond.

A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 14 of 17 - The Benesse Art Site Naoshima, located on Japan's Naoshima island, was concevied in 1985 thanks to a collaboration between a wealthy businessman and local mayor. Benesse - combining Latin's words for "well" and "being" - describes the site's complex aim of promoting connections among art, religion, nature, and education. Among the site's holdings are the Benesse House (above) and the Chichu Art Museum (two slides ahead), both of which were designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. His iconic use of concrete is in full view at the Benesse House Musuem (completed 1992) which holds numerous artworks.Photo Courtesy 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia via flikr.

The Benesse Art Site Naoshima, located on Japan's Naoshima island, was concevied in 1985 thanks to a collaboration between a wealthy businessman and local mayor. Benesse - combining Latin's words for "well" and "being" - describes the site's complex aim of promoting connections among art, religion, nature, and education. Among the site's holdings are the Benesse House (above) and the Chichu Art Museum (two slides ahead), both of which were designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. His iconic use of concrete is in full view at the Benesse House Musuem (completed 1992) which holds numerous artworks.Photo Courtesy 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia via flikr.

A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 15 of 17 - Among the artwork on display is Bruce Nauman's 1984 100 Live and Die. Mounted on four metal monoliths, the neon's flickering glow is surrounded by Ando's concrete walls and skylight above. Photo Courtesy 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia via flikr.

Among the artwork on display is Bruce Nauman's 1984 100 Live and Die. Mounted on four metal monoliths, the neon's flickering glow is surrounded by Ando's concrete walls and skylight above. Photo Courtesy 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia via flikr.

A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 16 of 17 - Completed in 2004, the Chichu Art Musuem (which translates literally as "art museum in the earth") aims to reimagine our relationship to nature. Its artworks, all from the three iconic artists Claude Mone, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria, are literally seen in different lights depending on the time of day and season.Photo Courtesy 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia via flikr.

Completed in 2004, the Chichu Art Musuem (which translates literally as "art museum in the earth") aims to reimagine our relationship to nature. Its artworks, all from the three iconic artists Claude Mone, James Turrell, and Walter De Maria, are literally seen in different lights depending on the time of day and season.Photo Courtesy 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia via flikr.

A Texas Couple Builds Their Cast-In-Place Concrete Dream Home - Photo 17 of 17 - Walter De Maria's 2004 Time/Timeless/No Time sits within a grand subterranean hall, its gleaming surface reflective the sunlight from above. When the sun sets, the space becomes far darker and the sculptures more mysterious. Photo Courtesy 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia via flikr.

Walter De Maria's 2004 Time/Timeless/No Time sits within a grand subterranean hall, its gleaming surface reflective the sunlight from above. When the sun sets, the space becomes far darker and the sculptures more mysterious. Photo Courtesy 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia via flikr.