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.
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"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."