When, every year, teams of Houston-area architects are invited to design and build luxury dog houses for a charitable event called “Barkitecture Houston,” they are implicitly asked to choose between warring schools of canine design. There will be the designers who choose to build mimetic, representational houses that resemble some artifact of the human world—a house that looks like an RV, or an iPod dock, or a weather-beaten blues club, or … a brick house. And there will be the designers who go abstract, taking their inspiration from someplace less literal. Rene Vital and Elkin Aguilar, two young architects who won the competition in 2011, are of this second school, and they may soon qualify as Barkitecture Houston’s first breakout designers.
“Why do dog houses literally look like houses?” asks Aguilar. “Why?”
We are seated in the backyard of the duo’s first customers, Diane and Michael Caplan, owners of the award-winning modular structure before us, which looks something like a sleek toboggan set over a shallow pool, and which the architects call not a house but a “dog retreat.”
“I would hate to put my dog in a plastic box in the backyard,” continues Aguilar, who speaks with a slight Colombian accent. “They need shade and a place to cool off.”
Behind us, in a shallow pond, swims T.C., a 28-year-old turtle the size of a dinner plate, and beside the turtle is a Jaguar—the car, unfortunately, not the cat—that was, according to Michael, previously owned by Lynn Wyatt. The Caplans’ spirited French bulldog, Cleo, runs laps around the patio, while Michael shouts “down!” and occasionally “off!”
“What we learned,” says Aguilar, gesturing toward the pool built into the dog house, “is that dogs exchange a lot of heat in their paws, so with the water, if they get their paws wet they cool off.”
“Down!” shouts Caplan. “Place!”
“We’re trying to teach her to go in there when we say place.”
“We could have put the slats right next together,” says Vital, “but we put them so a breeze could flow through them.”
Before the Barkitecture competition, Aguilar and Vital had worked in residential and commercial architecture. Neither had designed a dog house, so they recruited Aguilar’s English sheepdog, Cotton, to test out their designs. It was after the Caplans bid on the structure at Barkitecture, and after three of the Caplans’ friends decided that they needed dog retreats of their own, that the designers began to see high-end dog houses as a potentially profitable sideline for their business, 4dStudio3 Architects. The houses range in price from $8,000 for a ready-made doghouse to a $20,000 manse custom designed to work with the design of the buyer’s home.
“We wanted to build something that’s like a sculpture,” says Aguilar, as Cleo attempts to get in his chair. “Even if it’s not in use, people can look at it. It’s this interesting piece of furniture. Actually, when we were building it, I was lying in it. It’s a pretty comfortable lounge chair.”
“Now we are thinking about combination dog house/tree houses,” says Vital. “And cat trees! We’ve looked at them, and it’s just shelves you attach to the wall. We can do something stylish.”
“Instead of having a sculpture,” asks Caplan thoughtfully, “why not have a cat tree?”
“Our dog is our baby,” says Aguilar. “We call him that. So why wouldn’t we give him something as good as what we give ourselves?”
Asked which design Aguilar chose for his baby-slash-sheepdog, the architect puts his hand on Cleo’s head. “Cotton,” he says, “is still saving up for one.”