Small Amidst Sprawl
Rising out of the Texas bayou, Houston is both a sprawling metropolis and the largest city in the United States without zoning regulations. This cause-and-effect relationship has, over time, resulted in a hodgepodge of land use and a multitude of architectural styles that give the city its most unique alias, a city without memory. It was here, over a decade ago, that Mark Schatz and Anne Eamon met, married, and began considering how they could add meaning to a city that has only recently confronted its own fractured evolution.
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A self-described tinkerer, Mark Schatz taught himself the basics of the building trade before enrolling in the University of Houston’s architecture program in 1990. Eamon grew up on the bayou. She took classes at the Glassell School of Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and enrolled in the engineering program at the University of Houston before switching majors to architecture in 1992. She met Schatz a year later and they immediately hit it off. "Mark was fearless," says Eamon of her husband and design partner. "He wasn’t afraid of jumping right into a project and trying something. I admired that and he really helped me open my eyes to a new way of thinking about design."
Less than a year after they met, and still in school, the two started searching Houston’s more affordable areas for inexpensive property that would give them the chance to practice what they preached. "Our budget was smaller than a shoestring but we found a small, overgrown lot near MacGregor Park in the South of Riverside neighborhood. It was just a mile from school," notes Schatz. The property was being sold through a HUD auction, and as luck would have it the couple were the only bidders. "Just buying the lot was a stretch for us and we really didn’t have any money left to build anything," adds Eamon.
Over the next two years, they cleared underbrush off the lot and planted a beautiful shade garden. Japanese maples, azaleas, and hydrangeas thrived alongside mat-ure pecan and oak trees. Schatz and Eamon became experts at pinching pennies. They decided to move onto the property and stop paying rent in their nearby apart- ment. With friends and family helping, and plenty of pizza and cold beer to keep spirits high, they built a simple 200-square-foot garage/studio and moved in. "We lived in the studio for three more years while we saved for the house. It was a pretty tight space, but it was worth it," recalls Eamon.
The extra time gave the couple some breathing room during the design process. They eventually decided on a plan for a series of pavilions on the property that could be rented to the university’s commuter students. They thoughtfully discussed their social-redevelopment project and overcame disagreement with several rounds of design drawings and models. "I wanted something beautiful and Anne wanted something grounded in nat- ure and natural systems," explains Schatz. "We found inspiration in Renzo Piano’s design for the Menil Collection here in Houston. It’s modern but gracefully references the surrounding neighborhood. Le Corbusier’s work and his metaphor of the house as a machine for living was also a guiding principle."
In 1998, Schatz and Eamon grabbed shovels and got to work by digging the footings for the 700-square-foot house. They chose a site on the lot directly underneath a lush hardwood canopy. By including a curved roof, they were able to save the trees’ upper branches while echoing their gentle angle. With Piano and Corbu in mind, the couple successfully referenced the light-industrial build- ings in their neighborhood. They wrapped the roof and portions of the exterior walls with Galvalume, an aluminum-and-zinc-coated sheet steel known for its excellent corrosion resistance. Combining this with off-the-shelf materials like concrete block and Hardie siding, a cement-based product with a wood-and-masonry-fiber mix, they effectively rounded out the homage to industry and kept costs low.
"Progress was slow and we were still committed to doing everything ourselves," says Eamon. "With both of us still in school and working as interns, it became a night and weekend job." Once the house was weathertight, the couple finally moved in and continued work on the interior. They chose polished-concrete floors to help in- sulate the house against summer heat, and repeated the cool feel for the kitchen countertop and the stair treads leading to the second floor.
Maximizing space was a big concern in such a small house. By adding accent walls of pure color, like the deep gray in the bedroom, they were able to give the house the impression of greater size.
Schatz and Eamon also made a point of paring down their possessions while adding built-in storage wherever they could. They cleverly tucked a pantry under the stairway, for example, and in the bathroom they made room for a stacked washer/dryer unit that was short enough to still allow for a cabinet to fit above. The garden was also a huge help, say the homeowners: "It allowed us to extend the small interior spaces of the home into the larger shared environment."
With the house only recently finished, the couple have graduated from school and have established their new partnership, m+a architecture studio. Plans for a second house on the adjacent lot are well under way, with con- struction planned for early 2005.
"It’s amazing to look back at the last decade and see how far we’ve come," says Eamon. "We really enjoy our little machine, but we’re already thinking about the