Sleepless From Seattle

Fighting Houston's heat in home design: Award-winning architect urges a backward focus

Fighting Houston's heat in home design: Award-winning architect urges a backward focus

News_Handmade House_Carol Barden
"You don't have to spend all your landscape money on the front yard," Sundberg says. "Spend it where you, the owner and human being, plan to spend most of your time outdoors." Photo by © 2011 Don Glentzer
News_Handmade House_Carol Barden
"I tend to avoid giving everything away at the street," Sundberg explains. "Instead, I try to open up the space gradually to something natural, like a garden space, towards the back. That's kind of my own thing with Houston." Photo by © 2011 Don Glentzer
Rick Sundberg, architect
A former partner of Seattle's Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, Rick Sundberg started his own firm with his daughter, Mika, in 2010. Richard Sundberg/Achitect
News_Handmade House_Carol Barden
Entering from a slotted gate and wooden door, visitors pass through a narrow corridor that opens to a large living area looking onto a backyard garden. Photo by © 2011 Don Glentzer
News_Handmade House_Carol Barden
With its extensive use of locally-made finishes, the Handmade House required a team of Houston carpenters and artisans to realize the carefully-planned interior space. Photo by © 2011 Don Glentzer
News_Handmade House_Carol Barden
News_Handmade House_Carol Barden
Rick Sundberg, architect
News_Handmade House_Carol Barden
News_Handmade House_Carol Barden

"Coming from the nearly perfect temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest, I have to admit that Houston’s more challenging than I originally anticipated," award-winning architect Rick Sundberg laughs during a lobby bar interview at the Houstonian Hotel.

Outside, it’s 101 degrees, and there's not a cloud in the sky to subdue the Texas sun.

"Houston's almost the exact opposite of Seattle. There's a limited amount of time you can turn off the climate control down here, not to mention the fundamental difference in the amount of light. More than 75 percent of our days are overcast in the northwest, so we tend to load up with a lot of glass to keep the omnipresent depression from creeping in."

"Houston's almost the exact opposite of Seattle. There's a limited amount of time you can turn off the climate control down here, not to mention the fundamental difference in the amount of light."

Undertaking his third Houston project in half a decade, Sundberg surely has become one of Seattle’s foremost experst on the climate of southeastern Texas thanks in large part to two successful residential ventures with Houston’s legendary journalist-turned-builder Carol Isaak Barden.

“My career has taken me all sorts of places and I try very hard not to transplant my own notions," Sundberg says. "It's challenging. Our firm does enough serious study about the climate and the daylight that we're able to make some modifications along the way.

"But, honestly, when I see a site in Houston with lots of trees, all I want to do is put in tons of glass.”

Due to the searing summer heat and the occasional-but-significant winter cold snaps, however, he notes that Houstonians seem to have less enthusiasm for connecting indoor and outdoor environments than his clients in the northwest. As such, his firm has been using its Bayou City designs to better its understanding of how private, climate-controlled interiors can relate to Texas’ unpredictable weather.

With Sundberg’s second project for Barden the Handmade House on Bank Street the firm was challenged to adapt its nature-gazing architecture not only for the Houston climate but also to the tighter proximities of a residential neighborhood near Rice University. The solution? Focus the design on the backyard.

"I tend to avoid giving everything away at the street," he says. "Instead, I try to open up the space gradually to something natural, like a garden space, towards the back. That's kind of my own thing with Houston.

"You don't have to spend all your landscape money on the front yard. Spend it where you, the owner and human being, plan to spend most of your time outdoors."