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Cozy, Cool, Contemporary

Nelson wanted soaring ceilings with expansive glass to celebrate the calm and abundance of connection to the outdoors he feels when in this space.

A homeowner’s vision brought to life in the Heights

When Nelson Valena first visited the site where his contemporary Heights home is now situated, a simple 1,000 square foot bungalow sat nondescript on the lot. On that first day, from the porch of that small bungalow, Nelson caught a glimpse of the downtown Houston skyline and had a clear vision of what a home on this lot with this view could offer him. And if cozy, cool and contemporary are your style, then you’ll be hard pressed to find a better example anywhere.

Nelson scheduled a meeting with Lambert Arceneaux, Allegro Builders president, and explained his vision and desire to design and build a contemporary home capitalizing on the view. “We wanted the design to be modern and private, but casual, warm and inviting,” says Nelson. Lambert concurs, “Though the vision was for a luxury home, Nelson wanted it to be inviting in style, rather than imposing.” Lambert knew exactly which staff architect to assign Nelson’s project: Greg Swedberg, who had proved to be an amazing modern designer.

25th Annual AIA Home Tour
Nine architect-designed houses were selected by jury for the 25th Annual AIA Home Tour to be held this year on Oct. 22-23 from 12-6 p.m. Tickets are $25 per person or $20 for bike riders and can be purchased at any of the participating houses. Tickets are good both days of the tour.

Featured Houses and Architects (all square footages are approximate)

515 Ridge Street, 77009 • 4,000 sq. ft. (2Scale Architects)
2409 Avalon Place, 77019 • 6,000 sq. ft. (Interloop-Architecture)
1814 Arbor Street, 77004 • 2,340 sq. ft. (Intexure)
806 Fisher Street, 77018 • 540 sq. ft. (Donna Kacmar, FAIA)
4002 Meadow Lake Lane, 77027 • 4,300 sq. ft. (m+a architecture studio)
5906 Grace Lane, 77021 • 560 sq. ft. (m+a architecture studio)
2829 Nottingham Street, 77005 • 1,600 sq. ft.(Natalye Appel + Associates Architects)
Rice University (Entrance 4), 77005 • 3,200 sq. ft. (Stern and Bucek Architects)
527 Columbia, 77007 • 1,800 sq. ft. (studioMET)

For more information and updates about the tour visit the AIA Houston website, aiahouston.org/hometour2011.cfm.

The American Institute of Architects Houston is the professional organization for more than 1,800 architects and other design professionals in the greater Houston area. Its mission includes service to members and to the public.

Lambert adds, “This is a shallow lot, and with the build lines, we didn’t have depth to create a typical back/front yard setting. It became clear early on that home should be pushed to the back and should encompass a private courtyard. As well, once you are inside the house, it doesn’t just offer the one view of the skyline, but a layering of views. There are angled corners and a view in each room, which is the whole concept. The indoor/outdoor spaces take full advantage of this undersized lot.”

Greg shares, “Nelson was adamant that white walls, concrete gray colors and uncomfortable furniture had no place in this design. In fact, when he arrived at my office, he had all of these interesting notes. I thought he had lost his mind a couple of times. But his vision was very precise and it became our job to help tweak the vision into reality.”

Nelson discloses that he found Greg’s first drawing too traditional. Greg says he welcomed that, but warned Nelson that if they went modern, he would have to increase the budget. “With the initial plan, we all had this compromised feeling, so when Nelson gave the go ahead with the expanded budget, it really opened up the design to really be able to bring his vision to reality.”

Nelson agrees, “I didn’t want the feeling of compromise, so I was willing to spend the money on the design, price it out and make a decision at that point about moving forward.” Obviously, spending the extra money on the windows made a huge difference in the overall effect created by this home’s captivating view.

Aside from the astounding view, there were other equally important principles underlying Nelson’s vision for his domicile. This handsome bachelor, who is active in Houston’s social scene, is also an accomplished brain rehabilitation doctor. And as attentive as he was to the design and execution of his vision for his home, he is likewise attentive to his work and play. Nelson shares, “Every day, I work to rehabilitate people who’ve had strokes and brain damage, which is one reason why my home environment is so important to me. I know firsthand that anything can happen. Life is short, so I live by the principle that people should enjoy what they have and live their lives to the fullest.”

This house is without a doubt meant for entertaining. Nelson continues, “Part of my inspiration for the design of my home came from my desire to create a place where my friends want to hang out. I wanted lots of open spaces that can be used in different ways because I host parties for two to three hundred people every couple of months.” Very often Nelson’s circle will receive invitations to themed parties at his house that turn the place into a bustling indoor/outdoor celebration. From belly dancers to swim suit competitions, to dance-offs, he’s done it all. And there are ample spaces to accommodate all of the fun.

Lucky guests first encounter the private courtyard, protected behind an 8-foot tall, 18-inch thick wall of stucco and stone. This incredible space is an oasis of lush greenery and sparkling water. The 300-year-old gate directs visitors to walk over the pool and towards one of many covered seating spaces. Nelson says, “I requested a private courtyard because of the public nature of the street.”

He goes on, “I had seen the stepping stones across the water first in Bali, you know… walking across stones to get to a space. For my house, it is kind of symbolic. One must walk across water to enter the transformation from the city to something tropical. I wanted to create a contrast between my work in the city and the privacy and relaxation I enjoy at home. The wall and courtyard symbolize that transformation.” A dramatic wall of fire at the end of the pool also adds to the contrasts included in the design.

The outdoor wet bar sits at one end of the courtyard, connecting it to the party garage where additional dance space is often utilized during the many parties hosted here. The garage-slash-disco is completely tricked out with granite counters, abstract art, a big flat-screen television, a deluxe karaoke machine and even a disco ball. Transforming the garage into a dance space is as easy as opening up the garage doors, flipping on the disco ball and turning up the music.

Greg offers, “Aside from the multi-layered courtyard, the master suite balcony, third floor outdoor kitchen and living area and the fourth floor hot tub under a metal pergola give this homeowner more than enough outdoor space to enjoy the company of friends and family.”

Once inside the magnificent abode, one quickly recognizes that beyond the eclectic mix of old Asian/Pacific artifacts and whimsical modern pieces, which create a current and comfortable aesthetic, the arrangement of rooms is a bit upside-down. Greg clarifies that the home’s upside-down configuration was driven by the desire to put the most open, public spaces at the top where the best views of downtown are attainable.

The great room offers expansive views from the contemporary kitchen through the dining and living space and into both the private courtyard below and the downtown skyline beyond. The warm tones and textures help articulate the varied architectural geometry through the differentiation of mass and space. Greg points to a panel over the kitchen island and elaborates, “Nelson and I came up with this design element to differentiate the kitchen from the living area. Even though they are open to each other, the panel defines the kitchen space.”

As for the home’s décor, Nelson describes his style as a sort of “heavenly zen.” He explains, “Kind of like where angels meet Buddha, with a contrast of textures. We used lots of glass, metal, wood, leather… all natural and organic. The interior is extremely earthy, yet very luxurious.”

Speaking of earthy… green building principles also guided the vision of this home. Since this home’s design utilizes a large percentage of glass in order to maximize the views, aside from the insulated, thermally broken windows, other passive and active energy strategies were employed to improve the sustainability of this home. For example, open cell foam insulation was used to greatly improve wall and roof insulation performance. Also, since the home is organized vertically around an elevator and an open stair, several smaller A/C systems were utilized and zoned to specific areas, rather than only one or two large systems trying to cool/heat the entire house. This house has 5 A/C systems, individually controlled, only turned on when necessary.

Attention to detail is another factor boosting this home above the ordinary. These details, too, were all a part of Nelson’s vision. Consider, for example, the upstairs outdoor deck, which offers itself as the home’s backyard and an extension of the living room. A spiral stair cuts through the roof and not only is there an outdoor kitchen, but also a Jacuzzi and television. A glass rail offers an unobstructed view of downtown and a feeling of connectivity to the courtyard and pool area below. A wooden rail was used to keep the railing from becoming too hot from the sun’s rays. To maintain the “retreat” feel, a privacy wall separates the back of the deck from the neighbors, as well as offering an added layer of safety.

Another detail worth noticing is the home’s elevator and stair. Though they are central elements in the design, they become almost works of art: asymmetrical shapes are etched into the wall which houses the elevator and dance their way from floor to ceiling; on the stair, the rail is detached, so visibility is maintained all the way up and down from the bottom to the top. Greg explains, “Design marries all spaces together. Even the art is relaxing and serene, lending to overall effect. Nothing seems out of place.”

Nelson adhered to his original vision for his home throughout the building process and his perseverance has paid off. He says, “I wanted a place where I can leave pressure of work behind and focus on enjoying life: living life, relaxing, sharing; a place where the doors are always open; where people are always in and out. I’ve achieved that here, and I feel perfectly at home.”

Text by Cheryl Alexander | Photography by Ben Hill
Builder Allegro Builders; Lambert Arceneaux
Architecture by Allegro Builders/2Scale Architects; Greg Swedberg
Landscape by Mark Cannon, Cannon Landscaping


Near White Oak Bayou, the home utilizes an irregularly small, odd lot and draws from the downtown skyline as its context. The overlapping of space and intersection of mass create dynamic spaces with voyeuristic views.

The style of a home is often materialized in the small details. Subtle reveals, cantilevers, and architectural rhythm make this kitchen island the centerpiece of the great room.

The integration of wet bar function into the great room cabinetry blurs the transition from the living space through the dining and into the kitchen.

This spiral stair cuts through the roof and takes Nelson and his friends to the fourth floor roof deck. Perched high above the trees, he can enjoy the panoramic views of Houston while sitting in his hot tub.

Walk through the 300-year old gates, step into the tropical courtyard, and across the pool you find this cozy outdoor patio.

The paneled wood wall repeats the irregular reveals motif found throughout the home.

The Rainforest Green granite slabs used as countertop, backsplash, and even solid wall panels in the shower give this structured space an exotic feel.

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