Those building sites might intimidate some architects. They excited Cathi and Steven House, graduates of Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies, whose San Francisco firm, House + House Architects, has won more than 50 design awards and been featured in three monographs and numerous national and international publications.
Cathi said she and Steven “believe that the greater the challenge, the more it pulls from deep inside of us to do something extraordinary.”
For example, the hillside in California’s Marin County that was mentioned above is now the location of a dramatic residence that won a California Home + Design Achievement Award in 2008.
Steven said he and Cathi were not daunted by that home’s difficult building site because they have taken on many challenging projects before and have a time-tested process to come up with designs that are appropriate for their locations but also thrill clients.
The couple met at Virginia Tech and got married the day after Steven graduated in 1974. Cathi completed her degree three years later.
They start each building project with a thorough analysis of the land that includes tracking the sun's path over it through the seasons, views, neighboring properties, breezes, even the prevailing fragrances – everything that makes a site unique. The architects also present their clients with a carefully honed questionnaire. The Houses get information they need from the 200 questions their clients answer, while those future homeowners are provided a voice in the design that they might not have found otherwise.
“Most clients are a couple, but we insist they answer the questions separately and not compare notes until we have analyzed their answers," Steven said. “The next step is to show them diagrams to help them understand how they might live on their land – where the sun is positioned in the morning and evening, how rooms relate to each other and the gardens, public and private spaces, finding possibilities beyond the obvious.”
The Houses recently finished a home in an isolated community on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula for Pat Wright, an American civil rights lobbyist who was instrumental in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and her partner.
They dreamed of a two-story home, but it had to be completely accessible, and, because of the lack of a power grid serving their land, a mechanical lift was out of the question. The solution was a 160-foot-long ramp that sweeps up and around the home, embracing terraces and gardens, and serving as the main entrance for everyone, not just the wheelchair user.
“Through its universal design, including wide doors, raised switches, flat thresholds, lever door handles, and a wheelchair turning radius in each room, it is a home that everyone can use, with or without disabilities, [including] the elderly and families with children.” Wright has said. “We were amazed at how beautifully a ramp could be incorporated into our home.”
In 1993 the Houses were contacted by a developer who knew they had spent time living in Greece and Italy documenting village architecture. “He wanted his resort community to have the same kind of rich architectural experience that you find in those villages,” Cathi recalled.
She and Steven had not designed such a large project before, but they were excited by the opportunity to work on what would become a luxurious island resort, Parrot Tree Plantation, in Honduras.
“We started with an extraordinary, untouched site,” Steven said. “Our first view of the land was behind 30 men hacking with machetes through jungle so dense we couldn’t even see the sky.”
Cathi and Steven discovered that the developer shared their interest for preserving as much of the natural landscape as possible while still creating a comfortable environment in which to live. It was also an opportunity for them to work on a much larger scale.
“We designed the overall master plan, and laid out the lots and streets,” Cathi said. “There was extensive work required to restore mangrove and coral reef that had begun to die. We promoted a sensitive, ecological approach, along with architecture that is rich and varied.”
Their unique design drew plenty of attention including the Honduran National Department of Tourism, which presented Parrot Tree Plantation with the Premio Copan Award in 2003. At a grand celebration, the nation’s president praised the project and personally presented the award to the developer.
House + House went on to design several other resorts and private homes in Honduras, including the Mayan Princess Beach & Dive Resort, a World Travel Awards finalist in 2007.
Learn more about Steven and Cathi House’s career and design process.
Steven House’s eye for detail through his photography has also garnered recognition. He has received more than 25 National AIA Photography Competition Awards. The above photograph entitled, “Spiraling Balconies” taken in Shanghai, China, received the Judges’ Special Commendation Award in the American Institute of Architects’ 2010 Competition.
The Houses travel regularly and incorporate what they learn from other cultures into their designs. They also help future architects broaden their horizons through the Virginia Tech traveling scholarship they endowed and a study-abroad program they are setting up in Mexico.
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