Architects Christopher Robertson and Viv Nguyen believe that concrete holds a mystical quality. Whenever they walk into a building made of concrete, they feel it in their bones. “Concrete feels a certain way that’s different than Sheetrock,” Robertson says. “It sounds different. It’s a thick material that creates heavy weight. There’s a different sense of air. It sounds like bull … but it’s not. It’s there.”
Robertson and Nguyen used concrete in abundance in their new home in the Houston Heights, whose design comprises three separate boxes that delineate public and private spaces. A large concrete box 16 feet high holds the kitchen, dining, and living spaces. A wooden-clad box sits on top, while a concrete wall intersects the two, creating an overall sculptural, blocky concrete arrangement that’s simple and intriguing. “It creates a sense of mystery,” Robertson says. “You don’t know quite what you’re looking at from the street. We didn’t want it to be too obvious.”
A trip to Japan, where the couple saw a lot of concrete homes and buildings, inspired the austere design. “There’s a real blankness to it,” he says. “We were driven by that, and the sense to keep things more sculptural and less residential looking.”
The entry sequence and the way you move through the home is another way the design nods to the East. The path leads around the concrete wall to a courtyard that reveals glimpses into the home, then past some landscaping, and finally to a small deck and the front door. “You don’t dumbly enter into the building,” Robertson says. “There’s a buildup. A careful sequence unfolds without exposing everything all at once.”
The wood is Siberian larch, which apart from a “very effective salesperson,” he says jokingly, was chosen for being an abundant older-growth softwood that’s more rot-resistant than typical cedar siding. Without stain or paint, the wood will naturally weather to a silvery gray.
The concrete walls proved more challenging than the couple anticipated. “It was a big deal,” says Robertson, who was the general contractor and, along with Nguyen, the co-architect for the project. “A lot of my life was wrapped up in getting these walls built.”
It took a crew of 10 people working a month just to build the framework in which to pour the concrete walls in place. When the framework is 16 feet high, there’s a lot of pressure pushing against it. “If it’s not built correctly, it will blow apart, and you have a giant $50,000 mess of concrete everywhere,” he says.
The open living, kitchen, and dining spaces occupy the concrete box form. The clean, minimalist style of Japan informs the design. “We are definitely Japanophiles,” Robertson says.
Robertson and Nguyen didn’t want the kitchen to look like a kitchen because it’s surrounded by the public spaces, so they disguised the appliances. The cooktop blends into the dark granite counter; the fridge is integrated into the cabinetry; and the dishwasher, microwave, and oven are visible only if you’re standing in the kitchen.
A split-level design puts the island at countertop height on one side and tabletop height on the other, thanks to a raised platform. This way, a regular bench or chairs can be used instead of countertop-height furniture.
As you enter the home, a chunk of limestone forms a step up to a platform that creates a bench to the left for taking off or putting on shoes. The stairs lead to the three bedrooms and a small library to the left of the landing. Nearby, a floating shelf with a lamp on top provides a spot to drop keys.
The couple chose to keep the bedrooms small, opting instead for oversize closets and a master bathroom. Robertson and Nguyen wanted a generous feeling to the master bathroom. It includes a big wet room covered in large-format marble tile. “We don’t like shower glass,” he says. “It’s hard to keep clean.”
In the master bedroom, the floor near the window drops down one-and-a-half feet to create a small landing and bench on which to sit and put on shoes. The low window also forces the view down into the backyard instead of toward the neighbor’s house. “It gives the impression that you’re not surrounded by houses,” Robertson says.
The leafy backyard contains a large pressure-treated pine deck that surrounds black gravel. A free-standing wall was a test pour for the concrete walls that make up the house. The couple turned it into a backing for a fire feature.