Architecture alumni couple design a life of sustainability, accessibility, and engagement
January 16, 2020
What’s the difference between a house and a home?
That might sound like a trick question for Virginia Tech alumni Steven ’74 and Cathi House ’77, who, as their name may suggest, have a special connection to both. As founders of the firm House + House Architects, the two have been designing award-winning homes that prioritize organic, handcrafted modernism and sustainability for more than 35 years.
But for the Houses, a home is much more than a place to live. “A home is very personal,” said Cathi. “And designing a home is a very intimate experience, because you set the tone for what people see when they open their eyes in the morning, or how they feel when they come home after a hard day’s work.”
Being a designer comes with a certain responsibility, she explained. “We choreograph people’s lives.”
A sense of gratitude and respect is a guiding force for the Houses, who met on their first day of classes in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. They got married the day after Steven’s graduation in the amphitheater at the Duck Pond and eventually settled in San Francisco, where they opened their own firm in 1982.
Throughout their careers, the two have used extensive, immersive travel to define, enhance, and refine their design aesthetic. They describe several early journeys to Europe as formative moments; in addition to studying traditional and classical architectural sites, they fell in love with vernacular architecture – buildings characterized by the use of local materials and practical, functional knowledge.
They were especially struck by the five months they spent living on Santorini, a Greek island with structures of sculpted white lines and bright blue domes that evolved from the island’s climate, community, topography, and traditions. “That’s where it all started for us,” said Steven. “Our design philosophy was born there.”
That philosophy of colorful, site-specific buildings that seamlessly connect indoor spaces with natural, outdoor influences has become a hallmark for the Houses, who primarily build private residences in California, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Recently, the duo had the opportunity to apply their inclusive and functional approach to Casa Cabo Pulmo, a home on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula that garnered top honors from the Cerebral Palsy Foundation in the national “Accessibility is Beautiful” design competition.
Designed for a client who was instrumental in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act, the residence and adjoining garden are fully accessible and adhere to universal design principles.
The home features a 165-foot-long outdoor sculptural ramp that makes the upper living levels accessible by wheelchair. Embedded within the ramp’s gradual switchbacks are terraced planters of agave, a small patio, and a lookout that includes panoramic views of the Sea of Cortez to the east and the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains to the west.
Other universal design features of Casa Cabo Pulmo include accessible heights of outlets, light switches, countertops, and sinks. Tracks on the ceilings provide support for those who need to be lifted out of wheelchairs onto beds or into the shower. The home’s wide doorways and lack of thresholds allow for smooth transitions between spaces.
“We were so excited to design this home,” said Steven. “But we didn’t want the universal design features to feel like an afterthought, which is often the case. We wanted them to be integral to the home and enhance every space.”
In addition to its accessible features, the home runs on full solar power and uses passive convection to ventilate both floors. Its outdoor ramp doubles as a rainwater collection system, which is used to water the surrounding garden. The ramp also houses the home’s utility center, which includes space for solar batteries, the generator, and all building systems.
These sustainable features are often standards of House + House architecture. But the Houses aren’t only concerned about sustainable design; they’re also committed to sustaining the architecture profession. That commitment is a driving force behind their long-standing and continued engagement with Virginia Tech.
As a way to give back, the two founded the Center for Architecture Sustainability + Art (CASA) in 2012, a study abroad program based in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The program engages Virginia Tech students in a rich immersion into the culture and architecture of Mexico and includes intensive interaction with the Houses as practicing architects. Every fall Steven and Cathi visit the Blacksburg campus as well as the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center to meet with faculty and students about their work and CASA program opportunities.
Over the years, they’ve also made a point to hire Hokie alumni into their firm, and Steven estimates that 90 percent of House + House staff have been Virginia Tech graduates.
The Houses haven’t stopped there. Because of their deep belief in the importance of travel, they have also established an endowed travel scholarship for students in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies and have included the college in their estate plans.
“For us, it’s all about helping and encouraging young people,” said Steven. We’re so appreciative of the education we received at Virginia Tech.”
Cathi explained that since she and Steven benefited greatly from the time and feedback of professionals and professors early in their careers, they wanted to mirror that atmosphere in their own firm.
“We decided early on that we would never be too busy to help a young person,” she said. “We wanted an office that felt like Cowgill Hall, like a design lab. That wonderful exploratory process we had at Virginia Tech – we didn’t want to lose that as professionals.”