Cruising slowly up Banks, a narrow residential street in Houston’s Museum District, I’m trying to guess which house belongs to architect Karen Lantz, AIA. Along the way I find the typical Houston mix: postwar ranch houses and their lot-filling replacements, mostly McMansions loosely modeled on Versailles. I’m momentarily fooled by a big white modernist house, but it’s too cool, too formulaic. I know I’m looking for something more particular. Finally, I spot a precise assemblage of boxy volumes that looks—and this is a good thing—like it was put together from a Kenner Building Set. The exterior is marked by a xeriscape garden instead of a lawn, a length of white vinyl fence framed like a work of minimalist art, a solar water heater astride the roof that resembles a high-tech gable, and a light sculpture—a bright cluster of LED bulbs—above the entrance.
Lantz, 40, designed the house—built from the ground up and completed early last year—for herself; her husband, a dentist named Andrew Farkas; and their dog, Willa Wonka, a labradoodle. Her first project of note, it is as packed with ideas as an ambitious debut novel. In this case, the ideas are mostly about the economic and ecological impact of materials and products, where they’re made and how they’re sourced. Like many creative professionals lately, Lantz thinks it’s economically and culturally significant to support local manufacturers, much in the way we now support local food producers. More than just follow the LEED for Homes Checklist, Lantz attempted (and largely succeeded) in building and furnishing the house with materials and products manufactured in the United States—no mean feat. And unlike many concept-driven projects, hers is a testament to the fact that you can be highly conscientious without sacrificing the visual side of design.
Roll your mouse over the circles on the images below to learn about the products that Karen Lantz used and where they came from.
On a tour of the house, Lantz was quick to tell me that she didn’t grow up with a lot of money. She was raised in Pasadena, Texas, a working-class suburb of Houston, and married her high school sweetheart. “His dad worked at NASA and my dad worked at Armco steel [now AK Steel] . We both went to junior college and I went on to architecture school at the University of Houston.”
Fourteen years ago, the couple bought the 1950s ranch house that originally sat on the property and rented it out. They also bought a second house by the Texas Medical Center and lived in it. Both properties increased dramatically in value and helped them finance the new 3,600-square-foot house that Lantz estimates cost roughly $250 a square foot.
Originally, Lantz’s plan was simply to design a house good enough to liberate her from a professional holding pattern she refers to as “renovation hell.” But in 2009, as she demolished the old house that sat on the lot (diligently finding new users for the materials), she found herself preoccupied by the recession. “My friends were losing their jobs. I felt like there’s something very wrong with that. Why are those factories closing?” At appliance showrooms, salesmen offered her discounts for German-made appliances. Lantz was appreciative: “I was calling in every discount I could get.” But she began to resent the fact that she was “being directed toward products that weren’t manufactured here.”
LEED’s system (Lantz anticipates that the house will be certified LEED Platinum) awards points for sourcing goods from within a 500-mile radius, but no major appliances are manufactured that close to Houston. Lantz decided that, beyond the carbon generated by transporting goods, there was another important issue: American manufacturing. She eventually found an attractive, European-inspired line from Sub-Zero. “I was so excited that we were producing them in Madison, Wis.,” she says. And suddenly, Lantz’s design process had a focus: “It became a mission about finding the best-looking American products.”
Lantz began an extended scavenger hunt that turned up Corian, the once-ubiquitous white surfacing material, which DuPont makes in Buffalo, N.Y. She found kitchen accessories fabricated by Waterstone Faucets in Murrieta, Calif., and Uplift medicine cabinets with doors that slide vertically from Bristol, Pa., manufacturer Robern. From her home state, she sourced metal roofing material from San Antonio, soy-foam insulation from Arlington, and coated glass from Waxahachie. Houston companies yielded a steam therapy shower for the master bathroom, insulated windows, and terrazzo flooring. Bob Bertin of American Marble Mosaic Co., a third-generation terrazzo man, was especially supportive of her mission. “I said, ‘Bob, I really want to know where everything comes from.’ ” He obligingly hand-wrote a sourcing list for every last bit of gravel.
For some things, Lantz simply couldn’t find U.S. producers. While her decision to use an Italian-made sink in the powder room was a stylistic whim, the fact that she felt compelled to install a German-made solar hot-water heater and a thin-film solar array produced in China suggests that we’re behind the curve on these crucial technologies: “There are American companies making solar panels, just not the beautiful thin-film ones I was looking for,” says Lantz. “There are domestic solar hot-water systems, but the sources I found were not to the standards of the European companies.”
It isn’t just the sourcing of the materials that’s significant. Everything in the house invites the eye and the hand. For the most part, Lantz says “the materials dictated the aesthetic,” although she was clearly influenced by midcentury modern design. Indeed, her living room exudes Case Study House, with reupholstered vintage club chairs and sofa against a warm backdrop of Texas limestone. A round hanging lamp that could be a Noguchi is actually a piece by California artist Russell Crotty. And then there’s a zigzag ceiling, an innovation intended to modulate the room’s acoustics, which Lantz borrowed from a Madrid restaurant designed by Spanish architect Francisco Mangado, Hon. FAIA.
One of the more unconventional material decisions Lantz made is only visible in key spots—for instance, where the staircase to the second floor rests on one of the steel beams (milled in the U.S., of course) that supports the house. “My dad made steel,” Lantz says. “His company sent steel to New York for the [original] World Trade towers. I had the feeling that if I used steel he would love that.” Her father, she adds, didn’t live to see the house completed.
In some ways, Lantz’s first house is a typical career move: “As an architect,” she says, designing your own home is “the moment to make your statement.” But the statement she’s making is not just about her own abilities. It’s more about how the architectural profession could help boost the manufacturing sector. Industrial employment in the U.S., which bottomed out in early 2010 after decades of decline, has started to creep up again, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Similarly, the Institute for Supply Management shows a consistent uptick over the last year in manufacturing activity. But economic experts disagree about whether the indicators demonstrate that industry is simply recovering from the recession or whether “reshoring”—the return of manufacturing jobs to the U.S.—is actually happening. For her part, Lantz says, “I wish that I could influence architects that do big buildings to use the principles of this tiny project. I would like it to be cool to say, ‘I got my material locally.’ ”
What’s more, she hopes her project helps change the architectural character of her hometown. “Houston is such a conservative city architecturally. We’re always making houses that seem like they’re from someplace else. I hope that this house seems like it’s from here.”