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Within Houston’s sprawling highways and lack of zoning, distinctive building types have developed in response to the city’s economic and climatic conditions: the elevated OFFICE-MAT, the low-rise DRIVE-IN apartment, and the covered SPORT-COURT. Primarily developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, these small-scale buildings are some of the last sources of affordable commercial space and housing in the Montrose and Westmoreland neighborhoods. Today, the mechanisms of real estate in Houston are quickly replacing these finely calibrated types with large-scale speculative developments. HOUSTON-VARIATIONS imagines alternative ways to increase density without displacement. Rather than producing an endless series of market-ready spatial products, can the variability of type create a counter-project in the speculative city? 


The OFFICE-MAT is a commercial building type consisting of an elevated open-plan office space with parking and entrance lobbies below. Building costs were minimized by calibrating structural bays with parking and office space-planning modules, and designs often incorporated roof overhangs to decrease energy usage. Related to this type is the DRIVE-IN, a two-story multifamily apartment with parking underneath. The DRIVE-IN apartment retained the economic efficiency of the office mat, adding a shared courtyard to open up the office slab and bring in light and air to the units. Despite these environmental adaptations, the incorporation of HVAC systems compromised the original schemes, creating closed and air-conditioned worlds. The SPORT-COURT represents an archetype for an open-air architecture, offering an alternative to climatic control. 

HOUSTON-VARIATIONS reimagines twenty new typological permutations for the small-scale office mat and courtyard apartment, testing to what degree the constraints of the type allow a recalibration of the relationship between environmental enclosure and form. As a study in pragmatism, can these closed worlds become open frames in Houston’s varied seasons and climates, without compromising their affordability, modesty, and economy? By adjusting the relationship between typology and envelope, the project imagines new ways to restructure the relationships between Houston’s climate, social life, and current forms of urbanization in the city.


HOUSTON-VARIATIONS is the recipient of the 2022 RDA Houston Design Research Grant. ​

Project Leads: Daniel Jacobs, Brittany Utting

Research Team: Yao Xiao, Jianing Cui, Jane Van Velden, Christopher Sanders

Case Study Photographs: Sean Fleming /

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