A Contemporary Retreat
Building A Light-Filled And Kid-Friendly Home
Leigh and Jeff Bell moved to Houston from Tulsa just after getting married. When they began shopping for a home and neighborhood, the couple considered several factors: Jeff wanted to live close to his work downtown, they wanted to be part of a walkable community, and they wanted to be in a deed-restricted neighborhood with an active neighborhood association.
The couple found a lot with a small bungalow on it that had greatly depreciated, so they decided to tear it down and start from scratch. Leigh and Jeff interviewed half a dozen architects; they initially hired an architectural firm that designed a home for the two of them, with little thought for future kids. Then the real estate market crashed. The Bells had three kids by then and needed to go back to the drawing board. Five years later and a failed attempt at self-drafting, they hired a second firm recommended by a structural engineer.
Almost immediately, the couple discovered that building a home can push the limits of any relationship, especially when the homeowners have very different desires for the end result. Just like in their marriage and in managing their three children (Poppy and Paloma 6, and Dutch 4), the Bells relied on compromise and collaboration to hold their family and new home together.
Jeff’s preferences leaned toward a stark, minimalist design style with the contemporary look of glass and steel. Leigh preferred a warmer, softer feel with wood and privacy, which she thinks is important for raising children. To help their visions come together, the couple relied on Jesse Hager and Eric Hughes of Content Architecture, who created a stunning, contemporary 5,200-square-foot home that is so visually and functionally impressive that it was recently featured in the prestigious AIA Houston Home Tour.
The couple came to Content with a few must-haves that included a large pantry and a kids’ play area for her and lots of glazing and preservation of the live oak in front yard for him. The project began when the homeowners showed the architects how they wanted the site to be organized.
The architect consolidated the spaces around the internal courtyard – the ground floor held the primary social spaces facing the street and the guest suite with garage was in the rear, both connected by the courtyard and a hall/stair.
To meet the challenge of using glazing while providing privacy, the architects incorporated a series of slatted wood screens, such as those off the kitchen. The removable screens face the street in varying spacing and density so that a viewer from the street can’t see in. Since the house is elevated at this point, the owners can easily see out to the yard and street. Additionally, a rolling screen on the master balcony can cover the study window or partially cover a portion of the balcony, where the owners can sit without being seen.
The front elevation combines a light-brown brick façade on the street level with a warm linear wood façade on the upper level. A large amount of glass throughout the structure brings in ample natural light and views of the neighborhood’s abundant trees, while the wood screens offer privacy. The material changes convey the different zones of the house: spaces of interaction were delineated by glass, while more private zones such as the powder, dining room, pantry and guest room were enveloped in brick “boxes” with more focused glazed openings. Above this, the master suite was wrapped in wood and stacked in front, while the kids’ suite above the guestroom and garage are in a stucco.
For a family of five, social spaces were essential. The home provides generous open family zones inside the large glass walls that face both the street and a courtyard pool. Everyone loves to gather in the downstairs living space bathed in light, made even more remarkable with 12-foot ceilings.
The first floor guest room is as light and airy as the common spaces and also boasts a private garden that “allows our guests to get away from us when they need to,” Leigh said. The guest room with its stained concrete floors and access to the courtyard is a perfect place for the kids to drop their wet swimsuits after pool time.
The courtyard also serves as a buffer upstairs between the master suite and the children’s playroom and bedroom zones, in which three active kids can get pretty rambunctious. The kids’ wing is extra special with a large playroom patterned after Leigh’s childhood memories. The room gives the children lots of options to burn off energy with a mini trampoline, a tunnel and a chalkboard wall that encourages creativity.
Just off the playroom, the kids’ rooms feature an element that Hager calls a “light monitor” – a skylight variation that directs sunlight in from a narrow space between the top of the wall and the ceiling facing east.
The master suite design echoes the first floor connection to the exterior, with large glass walls facing balconies to the courtyard and street. The parents’ wing integrates activity with serenity by including an exercise room, an office space, the sleeping and lounging space and a luxurious Japanese-style bathing area.
“The home office is my favorite place,” said Leigh. “It inspires me as it is filled with natural light yet can shield direct sunlight via the movable sliding wood screen.”
Jeff’s favorite places are the two balconies off these spaces that give the grownups a private place to enjoy the beauty of the treetops surrounding their property. A large sliding second floor panel allows the street balcony to exchange privacy control with the study.
Both Leigh and Jeff relish the serenity provided by their master bath retreat that features teakwood flooring and a deep Japanese ofuro teakwood soaking tub with a shower on the side. “The treehouse view of the live oak can’t be beat,” added Jeff.
Though the particulars of each space vary according to use, the repetition of elements and specific design give a consistent and cohesive feel throughout.
Homebuilding is challenging both to the project and to relationships. “The biggest architectural challenge was due to the fact that the home shifts in both floor levels and ceiling heights and wraps around a courtyard with only a narrow connection between halves. These shifts made cooperation on the construction site of paramount importance. The routing of mechanical systems was challenging, however the result is well worth it,” Hager said.
The couple’s trials, aside from the ones with each other, were mainly with the process. Jeff said, “Houston is blessed with many talented subcontractors, however scheduling them during the last build boom was challenging.” Leigh added, “There was that and the small fire during construction.” The couple’s tongue-in-cheek advice to their team is for builders to expand their services to include psychological ones.
In all seriousness, this expertly designed home for five left out no one’s needs or wants and seamlessly fused them together to create a modern, light-filled family friendly retreat.
Text by Cheryl Alexander | Photography by Peter Molick and Benjamin Hill Architecture by CONTENT Architecture | Construction by Welch Builders | Landscape design by RH Factor Landscapes | Interior design by CONTENT Architecture and Anne Breux
TOP IMAGE: A wall of windows provides natural light and an appealing view from the living room to the pool courtyard. Furnishings from Roche Bobois and Internum.