The COVID pandemic reoriented our allegiance from city syncopations to the soothing sounds of nature—the pulsating bleats of tree frogs on a misty evening. James Evans’ clients had owned this remarkable property about 90 minutes outside of Houston for 25 years, occupying a lackluster house high above the smaller of its two private lakes. But just before the pandemic hit, they had decided to move forward on a new house with better access to the biggest and deepest lake.
During design development, they pushed James to locate the house closer and closer to the water, resulting in a house that isn’t just on the lake but of the lake (to borrow from Frank Lloyd Wright). The small glass house appears to alight on its shimmering surface as a seagull would, dipping in for the catch of the day and a quick sip of its spring-fed water.
“When I first drove onto the property, it was unbelievable,” James recalls. “It’s just far enough from Houston that you feel you’re going somewhere. And once you’re there, it feels like you’re out in the country. It was a former limestone quarry and when they were digging the lake, they hit a natural spring. The water is phenomenal.”
The clients had just wrapped up “an extensive restoration of a historic house” in Houston, says James, and were ready for something very different in their new retreat. “They had recently seen Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House when the river floods.”
They had also decided to preserve the original house on the smaller lake as guest quarters, freeing the architect to keep the new project compact, emphasizing its outdoor connections rather than interior space. As such, it contains just one dedicated bedroom, a den that can flex as a guest room, two full baths, a mudroom/laundry area, and a great room with kitchen, living, and dining. There’s a glassy perimeter topped by the butterfly roof, and a curving brick-clad core that provides a bit more privacy from the shoreline.
The butterfly roof was a flight of fancy, but it solved some practical problems. “When we got to that point in looking at the design details, we showed our clients 10 or 12 different rooflines,” he says. “This one just seemed like the right decision. When the roofs were flat it felt like they closed the house in too much. The modified butterfly gave you the views, the shade, and sat on the landscape in a comfortable way.”
Managing the size of the house was key to its success. Although eye-catching for sure, it doesn’t overwhelm its setting. Instead, the walls of glass facing the water mirror reflections of the lake—except at night when interior lights reveal the views inside. Not everyone could abide such transparency in their home, but the clients knew what they were getting into, says James, and were solidly on board.
And on board is not an exaggeration. “It is basically in the water,” the architect says. “The foundation is six feet in the water. We had to drain out the area and then put in the pilings and concrete.” There’s a fixed deck on steel posts attached to the floor and a second floating deck that provides the owners with easier access to watercraft. “There’s a lot of similarity to a boathouse.”
The house makes good use of its water access in other ways—a geothermal system taps into the depths to condition the house. “You need a minimum depth of 20 feet, but this lake is 45 feet deep—it’s a legitimate lake,” James explains. “We’ve done quite a few geothermal systems, but this is the first time I’ve done one with a water source. It’s less expensive to do it this way and it works really well. Plus, there’s the benefit of not having condensers that make noise—and there would have been no place to hide them.”
The owners acted as their own general contractor, knowing that the remote house was a tough sell to professionals. A caretaker and James kicked in some hands-on labor amid the various trade shortages during COVID and to help keep the relatively modest budget on track. “It did elongate the timeline, but I was not terribly busy at the time and we have built a number of projects,” says James. “I brought in about 30 to 40% of the contractors. And the owner and I waterproofed the windows together and installed the vent hood.”
The owners also brought in an interior designer friend who helped select some finishes. Crafted walnut accents here and there are meant to evoke Frank Lloyd Wright touches, for instance. Other materials were chosen for their resilience to the humid environment and lakeside location—thermally modified wood for the ceilings, soffits, and decking and LVT flooring for the interiors. The reclaimed brick was sourced in South Texas.
“Overall, there are some things here and there I might have liked to have been done better,” James concludes. “But, for what it is and how it was built, it turned out nicely. When you open everything up, you’re pretty much living outside.”
Riverside Lake House
Architect: James M. Evans, AIA, Collaborative Designworks, Houston, Texas
Interior Designer: Andra White
Structural Engineers: BEC Engineers and Consultants, Houston, Texas
Project Size: 2,630 square feet
Site Size: 107 acres
Construction Cost: $266 a square foot
Photography: Joe Aker, Michael Hart, James Evans
Bath Ventilation: Broan
Ceilings/Decking/Soffit: Arbor Wood
Cladding: Reclaimed thin brick, Roman size set vertically
Entry Doors/Window Wall Systems: Western Window Systems
Faucets: Delta, Kohler, Brizo
Geothermal System: WaterFurnace 5
Grill: Blaze Grills
Hardware: Emtek, Häfele
Insulation/Housewrap/Thermal and Moisture Barriers: Huber ZIP System
Interior Lighting: Arterior, Progess, Belfer
Lighting Control: Legrande Adorne
Other Insulation: Huntsman Ultra Select open-cell spray foam
Other Systems: AlpinePure HEPA filtration and ERV; Ultravation UV Purifier
Range: Bosch Induction
Range Hood: Best
Refrigerator Drawer: Summit
Trash Compactor: Whirlpool
Windows: RAM Windows