Houston Modern | Q&A w/ Keith Messick, MERGE Architects

Photo: Taggart Sorensen
Photo: Taggart Sorensen

Houston-based architect Keith Messick has an innate understanding of place. If you were to ask him, he’d tell you that, at its most primitive, the “living room” is a place to huddle around a fire for dinner and warmth. So how does an architect design a contemporary space that reflects these ancestral impulses while fulfilling a vision of modernism?

Keith is the founder of MERGE, a boutique firm that seeks to enhance the experiences of life and family through contemporary architecture and modern lifestyle. His mission is to design homes that add the highest quality modern architecture to the fabric of communities in a way that respects heritage, region, and climate.

One such home – the Bunker Hill Residence – will be featured on the upcoming Houston MA+DS Modern Home Tour on 9/24. We sat down with Keith to talk about this home, pushing the envelope of the modern experience, and Houston as a post-modern city.

Q&A w/ Keith Messick, MERGE Architects

In a nutshell, tell us the story of this home. How did you come to design it, and why did you design it like you did?

The story of this home revolves around the friendship, past relationship, and mutual desire to achieve something greater and to push the bar for the definition and experience of “modern” to the owners of this home. This friendship started in 1998 when I first met the family and was interviewed to design their first home. Our relationship grew quickly to one of mutual respect, trust, and a reciprocal sounding board for life. The quest for exploring what it meant to live a modern lifestyle, how to enhance the experiences of life and family through the refinement and honing of our vision of modernism through the lens of contemporary architecture. In addition to designing a solution to a very dynamic and somewhat complex program and architectural problem, this design reflects an intent to define a sense of place, timeless, elegant, and without pretention.

The architectural theories that I subscribe to and seek to push the boundaries is design based on empirical evidence, tectonics, and pragmatism. For the past five years or so, I’ve found the use of the diagram to be an incredible alternative strategy to that of programming alone and/or common architectural paradigm. The design of this house stemmed from an initial diagram that was a response or a distillation to nearly a hundred different site, climate, program, economic, and regional factors and was an over-simplified gesture of concept that gave clarity and direction to this project.

Photo: Taggart Sorensen
Photo: Taggart Sorensen

What challenges arose?

The immediate challenge was to overcome adverse site conditions due to the primary north/south axial orientation as well as a deep front building setback line. We had a long skinny site that factually would cause enormous heat gains on the east and west sides of a home if it was oriented in a traditional manner. Our solution to mitigate this condition was to allow that the first floor be designed to follow the traditional orientation but we rotated the 2nd floor 90 degrees which allowed us to minimize the east and west exposures to keep the heat gain down. The mature tree canopy coupled with the overhangs created by the second floor afforded us the convenience of providing shade protection for the vulnerable east and west exposures during the most brutal hours of sun exposure for the first floor.

In Houston, storm water control is always an issue whether you’re in a flood plain or not. This property is not in a flood plain but at nearly an acre, we still had quite a bit of work to do to ensure that we met the requirements for storm water detention. Our solution ended up being a buried system to detain just over 10,000 gallons of storm water rather than introduce any low areas to detain water in the yard. This gave the owner the ability to utilize all of their land for their enjoyment and not lose any to satisfy the code requirements for this purpose.

Photo: Taggart Sorensen
Interior Design, Kitchen & Closet Design: George Saba for Cantoni | Photo: Taggart Sorensen

What materials were you drawn toward using, and how/why did you select those?

We are drawn to materials that have both purpose and meaning. This is based on the premise of tectonics in architecture where we make materials not only utilitarian for the function of the building, but rather enforces and enhances the construction to a form of art. Aside from the purely functional need to waterproof a building, our compositions seek to use elements that lend truth to design and structure, where mass is situated naturally at the ground level and lighter elements are used at higher elevations. This composition both represents the materiality of the material as well as the structural means by which it is assembled. Additionally, how materials meet each other are important. The articulation of the joint or assemblage is crucial to enhancing the readability of the composition so we painstakingly work through the assembly of our constructions at a level of detail that is expressive of the composition as well as informative to the constructor.

Material has meaning imbued within it and we sought to use the appropriate materials that would reflect the purpose of space and the sense of place and security that they represent. For instance, the living room of the house with the fireplace should feel like a secure and solid place that harkens back to our ancestral roots and that almost innate sense of huddling around a fire for dinner and warmth. Even though this is a modern home with tons of glass and openness from space to space, and from inside to outside, we still want to satisfy our most base feelings of comfort and security. We wrapped that portion of the home in a clay/cement brick to enhance the sense of mass. The material wraps from outside to inside at the fireplace and through the use of basalt stone as a long minimalist hearth, the impression is that of solid security and warmth.

In addition to their visual properties, materials are tactile. We seek to assemble compositions that are not only tectonic but have appropriate variations of texture and warmth. We look for smooth and refined finishes where appropriate and contrast them with coarse or rough textures to enhance those refined materials.

This house features all of those thoughts through the composition of steel, brick masonry, split slate masonry, stucco masonry, glass, basalt stone tile, ceramic installations, natural woods appropriate for exterior or interior exposures, marble stone slabs, and cultured stone.

Materials are not only limited to the primary construction but we see landscaping and water as equally important elements of a composition that serve their purposes both as necessary but also as holistic to the entire composition of the property. We seek to use native plants and trees that are appropriate to our climate. We seek to use water as both a visual, tactile, auditory, and metaphoric element. This house incorporates all site and building elements designed simultaneously as a single composition that will change seasonally.

Interior Design, Kitchen & Closet Design: George Saba for Cantoni | Photo: Taggart Sorensen

You’re the founder MERGE, a boutique architecture firm that takes modernism as its foundation. What’s your take on the culture of modern design in Houston? In what ways does MERGE reflect a unique version of “modern”?

Modern architecture has been in the fabric of our constructed environment in Houston since its debut in the early 20th century. I don’t think though that Houston reflects modernism at all as a whole such as found in other major metropolitan/international cities. Houston really is a postmodern city when looked at from a business district standpoint and to some extent, the higher end residential neighborhood perspective. We have radial nodal city with iconic examples of post modernism dominating the skyline. These form the impressions that visitors have of Houston as their first vision of the City. Regarding homes, no matter the demographics, our residential neighborhoods are vastly predominately traditional or non-descript with their homogenous banality. I do not mean to disparage them, I simply mean to point out that you can get lost in this city because for the most part, every new suburban neighborhood looks like Any Town USA, they don’t reflect even the most remote example or idea of region or climate, nor do they exemplify any major or minor sub-classification of modernism. You have to gauge where you are by the age and or sizes of the traditional neighborhood homes. Periodically though, there are modern or contemporary homes that stand out, gleaming in their purity and beauty from their neighbors. Maybe it’s good to have a fabric of homogeneity where something different and atypical stands out. Maybe that’s what makes modern homes and modern buildings so refreshing to their owners and visitors. They are different. Modern homes are open, engaged with their site, and responsive to the climate and usually, progressively forward thinking with their technology and environmental sustainability.

It is my opinion however that modernism is seeing a new surge in interest across the board. I think there are differences in the lifestyles and tastes in the various younger generations that desire difference and a new responsibility that will have a huge impact on the future of modern architecture in Houston and elsewhere. As architects, we are opportunistic as a group and look forward to new opportunities to improve and push the boundaries on what’s possible whether it be our own development and understanding of theory; or from a building efficiency standpoint as it relates to size, consumption of resources, and other environmental impacts; or to people who are seeking clean, minimalistic, low impact/high efficiency and performance driven homes that are an emotional or psychological response to an ever increasingly fast-paced information technology driven demands on life.

Merge Architects is a firm that is very in tune with the emotional, psychological, and functional needs of our clients. We offer a service that is specific to modern architecture, but open to enhancing our client’s lives through extraordinarily thoughtful and detailed design. Our goal is the improvement of life through architecture rather than architecture for the sake of creating a better box. Our mission is to add the highest quality modern architecture to the fabric of our communities in a manner that is respectful of our heritage, region, and climate; and to foster sustainable design principles that minimize wastefulness and maximize value. I firmly believe that our practice and influence of modernism illustrates our core values and puts people first. Some architects put the architecture first and somehow people will fit into the form that is created. We put family, relationships, and individuals at the center of what we design and allow the form and composition to be reflective and representative of them. Whether it be an office building, a retail shopping center, the shop in a warehouse, or a jewel box of a private residence, we’re in the business of enhancing people’s lives and that drives our design and decision making throughout our practice.

Interior Design, Kitchen & Closet Design: George Saba for Cantoni | Photo: Taggart Sorensen
Interior Design, Kitchen & Closet Design: George Saba for Cantoni | Photo: Taggart Sorensen

What are some features of the home that tour-goers should be sure to keep an eye out for?  

There are some really thought-through features of this home and they are based on a conscious decision to follow the original diagram as a road map to the final design. The house is also based on a 5 foot modular grid that is divided into a “served vs servant” hierarchy of space that regimentally separates the primary areas from the auxiliary spaces. This can be seen with great clarity through the house but especially how the kitchen and pool house kitchen are arranged, the pantry & its circulation space to that of the circulation space in the pool house to the guest room and full bath. Storage, mechanical, systems, and utility spaces are arranged throughout the space within this served vs servant system of hierarchy so that they are planned rather than after-thought spaces and provide opportunities to enhance the process of experiencing the movement from one served or primary space to another.

The continuity of planes and implied volumes from inside to out extends space and the perception of space to enhance the sense of place and the expansive quality of experience from within the home. There are numerous examples of this that can be experienced both on the inside of the home and even from areas outdoor as we used both the form of the building, other hardscape elements and landscaping to create various outdoor spaces that flow from one to the other.

The organization system extends even to the alignment of interior floor tile grout lines to the patio and pool deck grout lines. The scale of the material changes but the alignment is exact from every vantage point in each x and y axis.

Also, the tour-goers may notice that we maintain a reveal along the top edge of the baseboard and the drywall that continues up and over door jambs to the baseboards on the other side. The painted wood trim for the house is all completely flush with the plane of the drywall but we’ve articulated the change in material with a continuous ½” joint that keeps the detailing to a minimum and the consistency of this detail throughout the home.

Every primary or “served” space of the home overlooks and has a view of the pool and pool deck area. This program feature was meticulously considered as the form of the home was developed and the orchestration of windows and opaque massing was finalized.

The services of this house are not apparent but they are impressive to those who embrace technology and user interface. These aren’t architectural rather they are amenities but as architects, we have to plan for building systems and integrate them into the construction documents. Each area of the house has an integrated recessed wall iPad docking station that gives the family the ability to customize their space to their desire. All mechanical systems, lighting, sound, and security system are integrated into a Savant system that gives the family total control and access to their home from their portable electronic devices from virtually anywhere in their house to anywhere in the world with a cell, Wi-Fi, or satellite system.

Want to see the Bunker Hill Residence in person? Get your tickets to the Houston MA+DS Modern Home Tour!



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