Space City

Why Brett Zamore’s Shot-Trot Housing Might Be the Wave of the Future

The prefab housing craze is impractical and, in Houston, virtually impossible. Are kit homes the answer?

Photography by Max Burkhalter By Sarah Rufca Nielsen May 3, 2015 Published in the May 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Erik and Tara Johnson's Pearland kit house

At three stories tall, there’s no denying that Zach and Emily Haines’s house stands out from the aging bungalows that populate their Near Northside neighborhood of Glen Park. But once you make allowances for scale, one starts to see similarities. 

It may be metal, and overhang the front façade in a jaunty, modern sort of way, but structurally the gabled roof is the same as the ones atop adjacent homes. Take into account the spacious front and back porches, the traditional siding material and the wooden windowframes, and an observer might conclude that this new dwelling is not quite so alien to its environment after all—just an oversized adaptation of something native.

Zach and Emily Haines's Near Northside kit home, based on Zamore's Shot-Trot design

“That’s the cool thing about Brett. He takes pretty standard materials and forms and tweaks them in a way that makes them really original,” says Zach Haines. 

Brett is architect Brett Zamore, who designed the Haines home as one of his kit houses, a collection of modern, efficient home plans. Inspired by a pair of century-old ideas, they’re unlike anything else in Houston.

The two ideas are that of the shotgun house and its cousin, the dogtrot, both staples of Houston residential architecture until the 1920s. Zamore, a native of Connecticut, discovered and fell in love with the utility and character of the unsung structures while a graduate student in architecture at Rice.

“I became very interested in the dogtrot house, how the old homes really worked and why they worked so well,” he says. “The thing about some of the older housing stocks is that they function really well, even though they may have not been space-planned really well, so it was about rethinking some of these older historical typologies and giving a modern spin to them.” 

The shotgun takes its name from the notion that if you fired a shotgun into the front door of the long, narrow house, the bullet would travel straight out the back door with nothing to break its trajectory, although it was air, not ammunition, that was expected to move through the structures, helping to keep them cool in the days before air conditioning. 

After renovating an old shotgun in the Fifth Ward as part of his thesis work, Zamore built his first hybrid “Shot-Trot” house in Eastwood for former Chronicle reporter David Kaplan. The simple but surprisingly airy and light-filled home, now more than a decade old, was featured in design-minded magazine Dwell in 2009, which boasted that the house’s naturally cooling cross-breezes and other energy-efficient ideas offered “the lowest utility bills on the block.”

Alison Romano's house in Wimberley

All of Zamore’s half-dozen standard kit homes are based on this original Shot-Trot design, but reconfigured in different sizes and shapes. They range from a basic 500-square-foot efficiency, typically installed as a separate studio or mother-in-law addition, to the Haineses’ three-bedroom, 2,200-square-foot abode. 

Outdoor dining area at Romano's kit house

The modular elements of the kit houses mean that customized configurations are fairly simple to work out, allowing clients like Erik and Tara Johnson, who wanted to build on a half-acre plot in Pearland, to modify the layout over time to accomodate their growing family. 

Zamore worked with the couple to design an H-shaped layout consisting of an enclosed corridor connecting two Shot-Trot wings: one featuring the kitchen, living area and master bedroom, the other the two kids’ bedrooms. It was the perfect solution for the Johnsons, who wanted both more space and an emphasis on design without the expense of a custom home.

“Neither one of us ever wanted a traditional, cookie-cutter type house, and I thought his kit homes looked really cool,” said Erik Johnson, whose wife upped the cool quotient by opting for vibrant lime-green touches in the kitchen tile and on the front exterior. “It stands out, but it also fits in.”

There are over two dozen Zamore kit homes scattered throughout Houston—mostly in emerging neighborhoods like Norhill and Brooke Smith—and beyond. Last year, Oprah’s Angel Network built a Shot-Trot for a Biloxi, Mississippi family that had lost its home in a hurricane. Another sits beatifically on a bluff in rural Wimberley, in the Hill Country. 

The Haines house

Zamore’s kit homes typically cost anywhere from $105 to $160 per square foot, too pricey to earn the “affordable housing” moniker but less expensive than a typical Houston custom home, which can average closer to $200 per square foot. That’s because Zamore’s kits are designed to simplify the construction process as much as possible, as well as reduce waste. All dimensions are based on a four-square-foot grid, so as to fit standard plywood sheets, and use off-the-shelf windows and cabinets, and prefabricated trusses. 

Romano’s kitchen

“The intention is to bring good design, high design, at a much more affordable price,” says Zamore. His second old-fashioned inspiration were the Sears, Roebuck home patterns sold by the catalog from 1908 to 1914. “All the materials were brought to the site by a train—it was this kit of parts that included everything you needed to build. But if you look at the old Sears, Roebuck homes, they’re amazing. They’re incredibly beautiful. What people did was they detailed them to create this individual character and gave them their own special personalities, their own personal touch.”

After designing Kaplan’s Shot-Trot house, Zamore originally intended to market the design as a prefabricated structure, only to discover “the big lie” about the prefab movement.

“People don’t realize the realities of prefab, which is that it’s freaking expensive,” he says. “You may as well just hire an architect and have him design a custom house. It’s just this label, in a sense. There are amazing prefab architects in California or the Midwest but…the cost of building [a house] in a factory is very expensive, and the cost of shipping is outrageous. Then you have to have a crane to lift these structures and put them on site.” The whole process becomes even more complicated, Zamore says, when you take into account the need for permits, which require a third-party inspector approved by the city to visit the factory site and make sure the construction is up to code.

“In Texas we have such cost-effective labor that to build on site is just a much smarter idea. That’s where the idea for the kit homes came from.” Zamore says that though initially intrigued by prefab construction, he came to realize that for all intents and purposes, such houses were “just for the wealthy, the elite.”

It was the ability to keep costs down, in addition to her home’s nod to history, that convinced Alison Romano to build a kit house for her Wimberley retreat. 

“It was about affordability with style and functionality. That house only cost $165,000 to build,” says Romano. “I liked the fact that it incorporated some old-school ideas. I have a lot of family in New Orleans, so the dogtrot and shotgun houses of the South really appeal to me. It is a modern house on the one hand, but it’s very simple. It’s not something that screams contemporary.” 

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