Project Brookside Studio
Client Ben Koush, AIA
Architect Ben Koush Associates
Design Team Ben Koush, AIA
Photographer Ben Koush, AIA
Tired of the daily grind of commuting? Then follow the example of Houston architect Ben Koush and build your workplace in your own backyard. In 2015, Koush finished construction of a one-story, 530-sf pavilion set in one corner of his backyard, next to his garage. The wood-framed pavilion is raised two feet above grade on CMU footings. Planar side walls on the east and west surfaced with asphalt composition shingles (Koush found that shingles come in green, so that’s the way he left them) reach forward to bracket a recessed, north-facing deck. A pair of sliding glass doors opens from the deck into the big square central room. This space, 19 ft by 19 ft in plan, rises beneath the peak of the hipped roof. Square windows on the east and west walls balance daylight in the luminous interior. The windows’ raised sills accommodate banks of shelving that run the full length of the sides of the room. The shelves on the east side divide around the Houston equivalent of a fireplace hearth: a through-the-wall air-conditioning unit that efficiently cools the entire building. Centered in plan in an alcove at the back of the building is a recessed galley kitchen, flanked by a bathroom and shower to one side and a spacious storage closet on the other. A skylight brings daylight into the kitchen.
Straightforward and economical, Koush’s green studio is compact on the outside, but expansive enough inside to incorporate a two-person workstation designed by Koush, a conference table, and a pair of lounge chairs — with plenty of volume left over for free contemplation. For Koush — who practices architecture; has developed, designed, and built several townhouse projects; writes about architecture as both a critic and historian (he’s recently published a book on 20th-century Houston architects Lloyd, Morgan & Jones); and is a gifted architectural photographer (you can follow him @benkoush on Instagram) — the studio makes it possible to work from home while still maintaining a distinction between dwelling and profession. Since completing the studio, Koush has re-planted his backyard with native grasses that conserve on irrigation. Gutters on the studio project beyond the face of its walls to direct rain runoff toward the vegetation. As a result, the grasses and trees have grown so rapidly that they now separate the house from the studio with a mass of greenery and shade.
Koush constructed the pavilion behind an architect-designed house on Brookside Drive that he found by accident in 2004 while looking for a house to buy. After getting lost in a mid-20th-century neighborhood three miles east of downtown, what he encountered was a Century Built Home, a one-story, 1,690-sf, three-bedroom house constructed in 1950 — entirely of concrete (even the freestanding, two-car garage is built of concrete block with a concrete roof). The house was designed by Houston architect Allen R. Williams, Jr., who devised this construction system to combat materials scarcity in the aftermath of the Second World War. Koush, the historian, combed through old Houston newspaper real estate reports to track down Williams’s story and identify other Century Built examples. Eventually, he met Thesalone Saunders Williams, Allen Williams’s now-96-year-old widow. After seeing other surviving Century Built homes, Koush realized that the Brookside house was substantially intact, although somewhat the worse for wear.
On buying the house from the children of the owners who commissioned it from Williams, Koush set about installing central air-conditioning, reluctantly replacing the steel kitchen counter, and putting down charcoal colored slate floors throughout the house to unify the interior visually. He preserved the two original bathrooms and their pastel tile surfaces and all of the house’s steel casement windows. His biggest change was to integrate a spacious side porch (Koush says the original owners called it their “Florida room”) with the house’s combined living-dining room, which then allowed much more natural light to penetrate the living room. To ensure that his Century Built Home would live up to its name, Koush got it designated as a City of Houston Protected Landmark (this will prevent any future owner from demolishing it), as well as a Recorded Texas Historical Landmark, and had it listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Koush has left behind on Brookside Drive a rejuvenated (and protected) modern landmark and a spacious secondary building possessing the flexibility to serve as home office, guesthouse, granny flat, or AirBNB accommodation. Respecting and preserving an economical house and extending its options by equipping it with an additional building flexible enough to meet a range of uses demonstrate how existing resources can be conserved and enhanced and how sustainability is as much about common sense and responsibility as it is about new technology.
Stephen Fox is a Fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas.