It’s not easy being green in Houston. And not just because of the city’s penchant for super-sized homes and sprawling developments. With summer days typically reaching 90% humidity, Houston is a city that grew up alongside the air conditioner. It’s difficult to imagine building habitable spaces without leaning heavily on a/c. So Matthew and Tina Ford, a pair of Houston architects, are bucking both market and Mother Nature.
The Fords’ new company, Shade House Development, builds sustainable townhomes in downtown Houston. Shade’s flagship project, Row on 25th, was profiled in the February issue of Dwell. The row of townhomes in Houston Heights, a hip-ish downtown neighborhood, is a study in careful compromises—both economically and environmentally. "We feel there is a real desire for this kind of living," Matthew told me recently over email. "We, as a firm, try to look beyond spread sheets and historical data to offer solutions for problems people may not even know they have."
Back in 2011, the Fords (working with an investor friend, the airport developer Holden Shannon) bought a plot of land in the Heights and built a single town home on it. Shannon stayed in the unit whenever he was in town, making suggestions about the design that ultimately led to the final, revised layouts for the other eight homes they planned to build on the site. The two-story, 1,900-square foot homes are simple and light, with silhouettes inspired by Hugh Newell Jacobsen, a champion amongst vernacular American architecture fans. "The simplicity and privacy offered by Row is in direct response to the complexity and loss of privacy we are all experiencing due to being interconnected and 'on’ all the time," Ford adds.
The purist roof profile and the number of homes—nine—weren’t entirely aesthetic decisions, though. For the most part, the project was based on pure value engineering. Dan Ock explains:
An easy-to-build roof allowed them to hire a solid but inexpensive work crew; designing the cabinets themselves and having them made 90 minutes outside of Houston eliminated retail markup; nixing finish work like moldings reinforced the modernist ethos but also saved money on labor; and relying on their own custom design shop and fabrication savvy let them cheaply build the large, dramatic windows that give the simple form an aesthetic boost. . .The Fords report that in designing many houses—five are now finished—they could take advantage of economies of scale with wholesalers and builders.
As to the climate issue? The Fords rely on simple, smart details to make their projects super-efficient. For example, in one of their first Shade House Development projects, they lined the roof profiles in radiant barrier house wrap, which repels heat similarly to the gold foil on a NASA shuttle. A type of heat-reflecting shingle also helps, as well as putting the air-conditioning ducts in the basement, rather than the attic (according to Dwell, most heat gain happens in the attic).
"Although I don’t think either one of us believes this is a good way to make a quick buck, we would tell you that we feel strongly the development has been a resounding success," Ford says. "And following this point, we are now about to kick off another development that is at least as ambitious as Row." Plans to complete the rest of the Row on 25th development are in the works, too. The finished homes now rent for a staggeringly cheap (by New York standards) $2,850 a month. Plus, you’re going to save on a/c.
Check out the full Dwell profile here.