The Lowest Utility Bill on the Block
Even before the words begin to form sentences, when you talk to Brett Zamore about Houston and architecture you understand it’s going to be an intense conversation. He speaks with the kind of fervor normally reserved for topics like politics, the reason for which soon becomes clear: According to Zamore, Houston’s politics are dom-inated by huge developers operating in a new kind of sprawling, zoning-restriction-free Wild West. As the conversation continues, you cast Zamore in the role of Wyatt Earp—he’s quietly taking a stand.
"You’ll be in a neighborhood and it can change in a blink of an eye," Zamore says somewhat excitedly. "Over the past ten years the city has been devoured." A decade ago, Zamore was a graduate student at Rice University, where instead of playing mind games with paper architecture, he renovated a shotgun house in Houston’s Fifth Ward district, giving the house and the neighborhood a much-needed face-lift.
At the time, David Kaplan, now a business reporter for the Houston Chronicle, befriended Zamore while writing about the project for a Rice publication. A few years later, Kaplan was ready to find a place of his own. Instead of settling for one of the thousands of developer homes that have altered the Houston landscape like a nonindigenous parasite, Kaplan, still fond of the shotgun, rang up Zamore. The pair looked at possible fixer-uppers in Eastwood, an old residential and industrial neighborhood close to downtown that had yet to be clear-cut by developers. Zamore soon had a different idea: to build something from the ground up.
For the young designer, this didn’t mean dreaming in computer-molded blobs and subjecting the neighbors to a vision of Houston 2040; rather, Zamore conjured the area’s architectural past. Unlike the Wal-Mart mentality of developers (who’ll sell the same thing from Minnesota to Mississippi, regardless of practicality), Zamore based his design on a fusion of the hot and humid South’s most successful housing types: the shotgun and the dogtrot.
Sitting on two long and narrow lots, the Shot-Trot, as it is now known, borrows its 16-by-80-foot footprint from the shotgun. At the building’s center two large barn doors slide open on rails, creating a central breezeway—like a dogtrot. This was a pertinent exercise in historical reenactment. "Old homes were designed to have air flow through them and cool themselves off as best as possible," Zamore states. "It’s like a self-mechanized air-conditioning unit."
Like its neighbors, the Shot-Trot sits 30 inches off the ground on a framework of beams and drilled piers, which, according to Zamore, is both "critical for the success of air movement in the house" and better protects the home from floods and their aftereffect, mold (both of which plagued the city after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001). The Hardiplank exterior clad-ding was accordingly chosen for its resistance to humidity and termites. As a further measure, the walls of the house are designed to allow airflow from the base to the eaves by maintaining a gap between insulation materials.
By envisioning the Shot-Trot as a kit of parts, Zamore was able to scale back on construction costs and minimize waste of time and materials. He based the house on an eight-foot grid that accommodates standard-sized wood members, such as the four-by-eight sheets of plywood used in the decking throughout. Installation for these and much of the framing required little more than a nail gun, eliminating cumbersome onsite cutting. Materials were further consolidated, and precious time saved, by using prefabricated elements from local sources. Wooden trusses for the roof were constructed offsite by All Pan Inc., and installed in less than a day. The Galvalume roof, chosen over asphalt tiles for its longevity and ability to deflect heat, was ordered to size, and set in place shortly thereafter. One of the home’s most luxurious elements, old-growth pine and red oak flooring, was salvaged from local tear-downs. (While demolished homes are common in Houston, according to Zamore, salvaging, unfortunately, is not.) In the end, the Shot-Trot modestly priced out to slightly less than $100 per square foot.
While Zamore is further developing the kit of parts into a full-fledged prefabricated Shot-Trot, Kaplan and his dog Bella are happily moved in, and are enjoying a home that befits the neighborhood and has the lowest utility bills on the block, if not the city.