WILLOWBROOK HOUSE is the first remodel-addition in a hot + humid climate to achieve Net Zero Energy Building Certification under the Living Building Challenge protocol.
Set on a slope above the street frontage, the original two-bedroom house was built in 1948 during the post-WWII housing boom. Modestly referencing the mid-century modern design ethic emerging at the time, the original concrete block structure was layered with white stucco and perforated with carefully placed black-steel casement windows throughout a well-proportioned form.
Carefully designed to consider its southwest orientation, the original depth of overhangs and entry shading allowed direct sunlight to brush the edge of the front porch slab during the searing summer months, yet during the winter, the sun is welcomed, carrying deeply into the interior during the afternoon hours.
The original house established a design rubric of stout simplicity and careful choices. In 2012, with a soon-to-be family of four, I designed and built an addition that cultivated the original context and care given to form and position.
As a designer, a fundament of my effort resides in realizing a deep affiliation between form, guise and utility. As the the space plan was settling to its final form, I had wrestled extensively both with
how far to intervene in the envelope and systems of the original house as well as how to stitch together the character of old and new.
THE front door is translucent, acting as a dramatic signatory of changing seasons through sunlight. When I completed the remodel, I commissioned Susan Wallace, an artist and friend, to craft a Willowbrook-imbued screen door. Together, the layers chronometrically translate leaf and light throughout diurnal and seasonal cycles.
OTHER than primary materials like sheetrock or insulation, nearly every other component of the addition came from others’ eclectic surplus. Interior doors, stud framing, cementitious siding, slate floor and wall tile, bathroom cabinetry – all of it was salvaged from Texas’s backyards and garages.
In the 1940’s, newly cut boards of dense, piebald Pecan, striated with shades of rust and soil and limestone, were laid as a warehouse floor in Waco. Decades later, smothered in layers of dull paint, the planks were protected from demolition. Planed and sanded, the naked Pecan became the plinth of Willowbrook House's addition.
Cautious spans were opened where concrete block once ended the back wall of the house. At the floor seam of Pecan and Oak, timeworn Longleaf Pine trunks bridge above, carrying the weight of old and new. Though their story is lost, the saw-toothed texture and sheer dimensions imply a stalwart, functional history. Short, thick terminations of these same trunks descend from the dining room ceiling, budding low-hung light fixtures.
Fourteen-inch wide, six-quarter slabs of century-old Loblolly Pine joists from an abandoned Texas church became a common language connecting distinct regions of the house – living room, children’s corner, kitchen, dining.
FROM an energy perspective, with permeable single-pane windows and almost no insulation, the original house performed quite poorly. Three existent, redeeming facets, however, were critical to the performance success of the amended house: the solar orientation, the window placement with appropriate overhangs, and, critically, the thermal mass of the concrete form.
I wrapped the house’s concrete structure in insulation, pulling the extensive mass into the thermal envelope. To achieve enegy independence, I disconnected the existing gas line. Gas cooking turned to induction. Gas heating shifted to an electric heat pump. Domestic water heating transitioned to solar thermal.
The roof of the new loft holds the solar arrays high enough to be clear of the surrounding mature tree canopy. In the first year, we produced ~20% more energy than we consumed.
I gravitate towards engaging my home as a place that compels tend and care; it provides comfort and shelter in return. Paying attention to the weather two or three days out, I strategize when to open windows to cool or heat the thermal mass. I pay attention to the rain, planning laundry loads so they can hang dry on the back porch. I pay attention to spans of cloudy weather, conserving hot water
when appropriate. I hang the horizontal shades on the front porch in summer, and pull them in winter.
Some might find these efforts burdensome. I find them cathartic and cyclically engaging, as by the season.
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Cedar + stucco front entry (after remodel) + seasonal summer shades over porch extension
Reclaimed Pecan flooring in addition
Trunk spans seam of old + new at dining room
Indigo in her study
Kestrel on the front porch in a summer rain
Trunks span openings in original house exterior rear wall
Living room with self-crafted Pine, steel + Pecan media center
Emergent Monarchs on front porch in Spring
Net Zero Energy Building plaque