|©Richard Leo Johnson|
When you come to Houston, TX, what angle will you be taking with the crowd here to engage their interest?
My visit to Houston is a sort-of “coming home” in itself. With my wife born and raised in Houston and my mother from Beaumont, I’ve often referred to myself as “half-Texan”. In all seriousness, Houston has been home to some incredibly talented traditional architects, including John Staub and Birdsall Briscoe. It is a great city with some beautiful neighborhoods and a lot of historic character that should be celebrated and improved upon. My hope is to introduce Historical Concepts and Coming Home: The Southern Vernacular House to the area and engage those who appreciate authenticity and detail, and value quality over quantity.
Is there a part of the world where the Southern vernacular can't be translated?
Certainly there are many common elements of a southern home that would not be applicable in other regions. For example, the classic deep porch, while ideal in the South for combating harsh summer sun, would not necessarily be a fit in a northern setting where sun capture is critical for warmth throughout the year.
That said, the idea of ‘coming home’ really speaks to our design philosophy and our desire to create homes that feel rooted in the past. This approach transcends region, and because of our focus on authenticity rather than a particular genre or style, clients are now hiring us to design homes throughout the country. We’ve worked in many locations outside the south - Maine, The Hamptons, Texas, Montana, and even in the Caribbean. We are not trying to bring “southern” architecture to the world, but instead we are translating the ideas behind some of these homes beyond the southeast.
While there may not be a universal style seen throughout our homes, I would say there is a commonality among our clients. Many come to us to because they desire something handcrafted and well detailed, and comfortable yet sophisticated. More often than not, our clients tell us that the most important thing is that we design a home that “looks like it belongs”. That missive allows us to dive into the traditions of each locale to create architecture that feels authentic to its place, nestles well on its site and satisfies our clients’ vision.
Houston is known for knocking down the old to build new. Do you have any thoughts on how we can preserve older constructions (though we don't have many left), while also satisfying the need to build bigger/better/newer?
Houston is not alone. Unfortunately, many towns – big and small – are facing the same challenges. These towns have existing neighborhoods with incredible character which are a big draw to buyers; however the homes, typically from the early to mid-20th century, do not accommodate today’s lifestyle. As older homes can have inherent issues, the result tends to be people tearing down the old homes and replacing them with builder plans which are more suitable for suburban locations, and often lack the architectural character.
A few years back Atlanta put a brief moratorium on building permits because of this “McMansion” problem. In my opinion “no progress” is not the correct answer. Instead, I think communities that value their historic roots can come together and promote appropriate infill development. This can be done through pattern books that codify the architectural character of the existing homes and create a guide for new development to follow. There is no reason a new home cannot feel every bit as good as an older home, it simply takes an attention to detail, proportion and massing.
In addition, the scale is tipped in favor of tearing down old homes (it’s cheaper to start from scratch and no value is put on the existing homes). To level the playing field, cities could offer tax incentives for people who restore an older home, or at least retain the majority of its character. One town passed a law that if you purchased a home in a historic neighborhood and rehabbed it, your property taxes would freeze for 10 years. There is also a sustainability aspect to using existing structures, called “embodied energy,” which is completely lost in a teardown.
For those who don't know a ton about architecture (myself included), what can we learn or take away from Coming Home?
In my opinion, many people are drawn to southern architecture because of the familiarity and sense of warmth that it conveys. That feeling is what so many of our clients really want to capture – whether building in the South, or elsewhere. This attention to precedent and detail, while blending the old with the new, can be applied to any project, no matter the size and style. From the Greek Revival mansion to the small vernacular cottage, comfortable, well-crafted spaces can be created by incorporating local traditions, and the character that historic precedent provides. This study allows us to create a sense of place and authenticity no matter where we are working, and that makes residents and visitors alike feel as if they are in fact “coming home”.