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Tour an Energy-Efficient Modern Cabin Masquerading as Traditional Texas Ranch House

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Photo by Jack Thompson, courtesy of <a href="http://sternbucek.com/">Stern and Bucek Architects</a>.
Photo by Jack Thompson, courtesy of Stern and Bucek Architects.

Today Curbed is taking readers on a visit to a Texas ranch house that conceals a modern heart: energy-efficient, with flexible space and a strong connection to the outdoors. We're always looking for more homes to tour, so email us with leads at national@curbed.com.

The Griffith Ranch, outside of Houston, designed by Stern and Bucek Architects. Photo by Jack Thompson.

Architects need to begin relationships with clients assured everyone is on the same page. Furthermore, contemporary architecture firms such as Stern and Bucek Architects in Houston take pride in showcasing highly innovative materials. But when potential clients Jamie and Margaret Griffith came to their office five years ago, such standard practices had to be tossed out the window.

The couple wanted a new house on the Griffith family ranch, not far from the tiny bayou township of East Columbia, 55 miles southwest of Houston. Jamie Griffith, according to his artist wife, dreamed of a Texas version of a "Mississippi Delta" house: above-ground, unpretentious, with screened-in porches. Margaret was dead set on something modern.


Jamie Griffith, a real estate investor, informed Stern that he did not care for the Modernist aesthetic, including Stern's own work, and then announced that any architect taking the job had to use traditional materials from this historic part of Texas. To underscore his point, Griffith was soon to buy some age-old timber rescued from an 1840s plantation house, now in ruins, on the property.

Stern, who passed away in early 2013 halfway through the project, found himself intrigued by Griffith. Bucek, who now runs the firm, is not only a recognized preservationist but came from the small town of Wharton, Texas. He quickly connected with Griffith's straightforward personality. The urbane architects took on the project, designing a highly contemporary, energy-efficient house out of reclaimed materials—one that somehow manages to satisfy the conflicting desires of both clients.


Existing compound on the Griffiths' acreage. Photo courtesy Stern and Bucek Architects.


Existing pole barn on the ranch property. Photo courtesy Stern and Bucek Architects.


Existing cistern on ranch property. Photo courtesy Stern and Bucek Architects.

Set on the banks of what is known as Dry Bayou, a remnant of the Brazos River, the Griffiths' project expanded during four years of construction. The couple liked the first building, a guest house, so much it became the main house. "With the screened-in porches, there was plenty of room," explains Margaret. The interior spaces only measure 1,266 square feet; the porches add another 800.

A disarmingly simple twist on the traditional, Lowcountry Texas home, it has a subtle modern sensibility. Notes architect David Bucek, "From the front it's asymmetrical, and the house cantilevers out in places, both no-no's for [vernacular] purists." Inside reveals a vaulted ceiling, where traditionally it would have been flat. Even the wood joinery is contemporary, with windows flush to the wall siding.

In the uncompromising Texas heat, the house stays cool. "We hardly ever use air conditioning," notes Griffiths. (Their unit utilizes a geo-thermal cooling system with pipes circulating water through the ground from 400 feet below.) Bucek, assisted now by the firm's principal, Daniel Hall, enhanced ventilation thanks to a wide central hallway. It's raised above ground, set on top of bricks from Camargo, Mexico. (The closest match to old, handmade bricks from the area they could find.) A screened-in porch on the Southeastern side houses a dining area and swinging beds hang from the ceiling on chains. The Griffiths sleep here, taking advantage of the breeze from the Gulf.


Salvaged materials that were integrated into interior finishes. Photo courtesy Stern and Bucek Architects.

Finding reclaimed materials for the house—since the plantation house wood was used only for columns and the porch roof rafters—wasn't easy. The interior walls sport salvaged shiplap bought in Houston; the doors were originally used in South America. The pecan flooring was new, added as a counterpoint to the pecan orchard Griffith planted nearby.

The architects also built an elegant barn that houses a garage and a room for hunting equipment. On the second floor, two guest rooms are separated by a breezeway from Margaret Griffith's studio. A pool and an accompanying pool house with a BBQ made from salvaged oilfield pipes complete the compound. "This is where we always entertain," says Margaret Griffith.

The couple now spend four nights a week at their ranch. So did the project with a rocky start end up ruining any of the relationships involved? The couple are currently scouting for a lot in Houston to build on, which they've hired Stern and Bucek to design. Margaret Griffith still swears it will be modern.

BEFORE: The main house. Photo courtesy Stern and Bucek Architects.

BEFORE: The pool house. Photo courtesy Stern and Bucek Architects.

· Stern and Bucek Architects [Official site]