Stunning in Southgate
Urban design provides livable, inviting fun
Neil and Kris Thomas have called Houston home for a long time. Married in 1984 after meeting in law school (he is a partner practicing public law at Norton Rose Fulbright, she is a lawyer employed by the federal judiciary), their first home together was an apartment. After that, they owned homes in the Heights and Candlelight Plaza before finding their current lot in Southgate in 2001. Back then, however, the house on the lot was completely different.
The Thomases lived in and remodeled the original 1,700-square-foot house over the ensuing 10 years, adding on a 700-square-foot two‐story addition to the back of the house. Then disaster happened: severe drought caused the pier and beam foundation of the original house to separate from the slab foundation of the two-story addition, which pulled the walls apart.
Though they considered all their options, they rebuilt on the same lot because they love the neighbors up and down their street, as well as the neighborhood and the location near Rice University, Rice Village, the Museum District, Hermann Park Golf Course and downtown. So the couple decided to tear down the house in December 2011, and for the next two years, they lived in a rented house nearby while they built a new house.
Finding an architect was easy. Neil said, “We knew we wanted Walter Murphy to be our architect because of his body of work and because we have been friends for many years – we used to drive to Santa Fe, New Mexico for skiing trips at Christmas time.”
Kris added, “We also knew we could not be trusted to achieve a coherent look for walls, furnishings and finishes on our own, so Walter suggested we meet with Marlys Tokerud. We loved everything Marlys and her associate, Courtney Blair, suggested.”
The couple instructed the architect and designer to help them achieve a finished home that would be comfortable to live in, easy to care for and provide a good space for their books, parties and business-related events. Additionally, Neil wanted a study; Kris wanted a garden; and both wanted four bedrooms. For the aesthetic, they opted to fuse modern with traditional.
The new home provides all of those details along with a strong connection to the outdoors, which enhances the Thomas’ interests in entertaining, gardening and music. The face brick and stucco on the front took their cues from the nearby houses and Rice University to keep this more contemporary structure in context with the older neighborhood. The orientation of the home on the narrow deep lot allows the back yard to be graced by prevailing breezes and be shaded by the two-story wing in the afternoon. The single-story brick wing, with its roof deck and trellis, separates the public from private outdoor spaces.
Rock salt textured concrete exterior paving connects with grass pavers to accommodate guest parking off the narrow neighborhood street, which makes for easier entertaining. Guests are directed to the front door by the subtle geometry reflected in the auto court and entry that continues into the garden and long, tapering reflecting pool. A fountain produces soothing background noise. Concrete stepping stones float in the pool water linking the interiors to the garden outside.
According to award-winning architect Murphy, several notable design features provide uniqueness and drama to the home, and also gained the home distinction on the 2015 AIA Houston Home Tour:
- Multiple axes in the floor plan form a procession through the long narrow site and home, providing points of inter-connectivity among the varied spaces.
- To save space, the living room serves as a library accommodating the Thomas’ primary book collection and as a music room with the piano framed by a large bay window.
- The bay window looks east to large raised Corten steel planter boxes. Three galvanized steel trellis structures cantilever off the east facade, modulating sunlight at key openings. A fourth trellis shades the terrace space facing south into the garden and frames the view from the study.
- A large free-standing cabinet defines the living room from the dining room but provides a framed view to both. This pass- through counter is lined with black mill finish steel plate complete with handwritten marks from the factory still intact.
- A stucco wall structure forms a “summer kitchen” space located on the east property line opposite the covered outdoor dining space and the kitchen. The stucco walls morph into an outdoor shower enclosure open to the sky.
Energy efficiency was a consideration, too, in the concept of this home’s design. For example, glass is kept to a minimum on the west façade, and covering the back portion of the main wing of the house is a fiber cement horizontal rain screen on furring strips that provides ventilation through the skin. Additionally, Galvalume finish steel roof panels reflect a large portion of the sunlight.
The Thomases say the result of their original vision is better than anything they ever imagined and that every space in the house is constantly used. Kris said, “We have events at our home fairly often and the entire downstairs flows easily between the backyard patio and the dining room and living room, especially since visually the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors bring the outside in and vice versa.” And what is remarkable about their kitchen? This couple who cooks together said they love having drawers deep enough to store pots and pans. The kitchen also provides quick access to the outdoor dining and food garden.
Kris said, “Neil and I both like to garden, so Alisa Dawson made four large raised beds for us. They are made of steel so they would rust and develop a nice patina. Alisa landscaped the backyard with a large rectangle full of Muhly grass that turns pink in October and waves in the wind, which is an effect we just love.” The couple has two Arbequina Olive trees that produce olives. Additionally, because they have two dogs, they made sure to include a large rectangle of grass for their use.
The dogs were a consideration in the floor plan downstairs as they freely move from inside to out during the day. To accommodate their activity, a stained concrete floor proved to be a smart choice. It works well for entertaining, too.
The master suite and bath provide comfort, luxury and a distinctive aesthetic. A large picture window and high-placed windows on the walls of the bathroom, bedroom and closets offer interesting views and lighting effects — one creates a rainbow prism in the shower. They also enjoy their own separate lavatories in the master bath so they don’t get in each other’s way every morning.
As for favorite spaces inside, Kris loves her closet. She said, “I insisted on extra lights in the ceiling, so I can easily see my clothes when dressing, plus it is a nice large space.” Neil’s favorite is his study simply because it is where he has a whole room entirely to himself. And their kids? The couple says that since their kids are grown and live away from home, they like the dining room because they get to eat there when they visit.
The Thomas’ new home, though borne from a natural disaster, now more effortlessly fulfills the needs and desires of their lifestyle in a way the previous home did not. And with a little insight and vision, paired with a lot of effort by a team of professionals, the couple was able to stay on the lot they love, in the neighborhood they love in a brand new home that they love.
Text by Cheryl Alexander
Photography by Kyle Humphries, Murphy Mears Architects
Architecture by Walter D. Murphy, Jr. AIA, Murphy Mears Architects
Construction by Keeland Associates, Inc.
Landscape Design by Alisa Dawson
Interiors by Marlys Tokerud and Courtney Blair, Tokerud & Co.
Landscape Installation by Moss Landscaping