While in Houston, a few days ago I visited Prof. John Zemanek in his new house (his 3rd) in Montrose. To be honest, I had heard a lot about his new endeavor, specially around the Hines College of Architecture premises, where he has taught for over 40 years. It has been a concept which he had developed over several years, after deciding that his 2nd house -the Peden house- was too big for him (although in an interview back in 2008, he had confessed to Carlos Jimenez that this was just an excuse, the real reason is that he needed to build).
On approach, the house looks like a marriage between a west Texas dogtrot and a Japanese vernacular house entangled in a torrid menage a trois with a makeshift solar farm. The elongated, shallow volume of the house is flanked on the east side by a candid support structure for photovoltaic panels that also acts as a semi-porch of sorts. By choice, he kept the programmatic organization of the house linear and simple, with one volume but clear distinctions between the public and private areas, using half walls and furniture as space dividers.
I hadn't seen Professor Zemanek since I had gone to London to attend the Sustainability program at the AA a couple of years ago, around the same time he began construction. At 90, he keeps as sharp and energetic as ever, and enthusiastic about architecture and its responses to the unusual circumstances of today's world. This house is both a pragmatic response to these circumstances as well as a reverence to the new technologies that can make it possible. Very few sustainable architects I know dare to incorporate their environmental/sustainable elements as part of their architectural language. And the ones that do -specially in Britain- sometimes do it clumsily.
I think this house in general meets the 3 categories I think a sustainable building should have = it is helioresponsive, organized and oriented taking into consideration its relation to its incident solar geometry; it is biomorphic, morphed and structured according to the functions inside and their possible contextual relation with the immediate climate outside and its changes; and it is anentropic, being not over-specified and flexible enough to be renovated incessantly, curtailing the effects of decay and change.
Unfortunately, one of the recognizable features of the house may also be its main pitfall= the detailing is poor and it looks makeshift, and the consequences may lie in risking the energy performance of the building. He had no energy performance information available other than the fact that the photovoltaic panels provide electricity during the daytime (I assume also enough to power up the AC unit) and how little money he has paid in electricity bills. But we're in mid-season, which in Houston is very gentle, without the inclemency of summer weather or the extreme fluctuations in winter. And I also wonder if and how the house will pass the test of its first hurricane.
In the end, I think its charm has to do with its disregard for any sustainable standard. Its design doesn't follow any LEED, BREEAM, California Green Building Codes or Living Building prescriptive requirements (even though I'm sure it will comply if it was assessed). It is just sheer common sense. And it is very appealing. Maybe in the far future this approach will come naturally and these standards will not mean a thing, because in the end -as Zemanek himself stated it once- Architecture is not about itself, it is about life.
Alfonso E. Hernandez
Architectural Designer + Sust/enabler
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Just some musings about the intersection between Architectural Design + Sustainability. Alfonso E. Hernandez is an Architectural Designer + Sust/enabler.