A Houston architect’s Fourth Ward project is having a moment. 

Zui Ng, design principal of ZDES Design-Build and local professor of architecture, first conceived of his “Shotgun Chameleon” house a decade ago when he entered it in an international competition that sought replacement designs for homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. 

He won, and 10 years later, the architecture world is still taking notice. Ng’s design is currently on display at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. through next year; it was deemed one of the five best houses in Texas by design magazine Dezeen, and Architectural Record dubbed it “House of the Month.”

As its name suggests, “Shotgun Chameleon” was inspired by Ng’s studies of New Orleans’ vernacular architecture and the flexibility of traditional Gulf Coast dwellings.

The two-story, single-family home is designed specifically with the potential to subdivide and adapt over time–hence “chameleon.”

Today, Ng and his wife and 3-year-old daughter live in the three-bedroom, two-bathroom home between Montrose and downtown, and it’s already accommodated the young family’s changing needs, just as Ng intended: During his daughter’s infancy, his parents lived downstairs to help care for her. After she grew old enough for daycare and Ng’s parents moved out, the bottom unit went up for rent. 

Now, that supplemental income covers the mortgage–also intentional, as Ng wanted to flip the switch on how people think of a house, typically something that consumes the owner and his finances. 

“What if we think about it the other way: What if the house is something that makes money for you?” Ng wondered. “The house evolves based on how the family grows.”

Sc floor plans zui ng yzmjsw

Floor plans of Zui Ng's two-story "Shotgun Chameleon" house, which is designed for a single family and can be subdivided in various arrangements to accommodate a homeowner's changing needs.

To make the house truly sustainable, Ng considered both economics and environment. At 1,500-square feet, “Shotgun Chameleon” takes advantage of natural cross-ventilation with a south-facing balcony and porch and a carefully angled roof. Ng also used renewable materials and low-energy appliances like dual-flush toilets, mini-split air conditioning units and a tankless water heater.

Add to that all electric appliances, and Ng’s annual energy consumption is less than half of the average Texan’s.

Still, there’s more to sustainability than efficiency.

“I would love to push it further,” Ng said. “I want to talk about how to sustain the culture and history of the place.”

In the Fourth Ward, that’s an obvious discussion. Three years ago, Ng bought the lot for $50,000; today, the same site could go for six times as much.

Ng is acutely conscious of the historic neighborhood’s rampant gentrification, and “Shotgun Chameleon” hopes to defy that trend. Ng was inspired by the site of his project in Freedmen’s Town, settled in the mid-1800s by thousands of freed slaves. Surrounded by trees, the lot also offered a rare lush backdrop Ng refused to disturb. 

“With design, I always teach my students, ‘don’t impose yourself on the site,’” he said. “As a designer, you are the servant, you are not really the hero or the master. You’re servicing the site.” 

Ng also designed with his neighbors in mind. The balcony and porch encourage interaction with passersby in the lively community, and a versatile facade–wood siding, commercial billboards and vine-covered screens are all possibilities–is meant to adapt to different urban contexts and honor a sense of place.

A self-described “black sheep” in the design community, Ng recently bought a new lot in the Fifth Ward and is starting work on his next experimental house. He wants to further explore the use of rental units for additional income, especially for his architecture students who pay costly rent to live close to school or else sacrifice with a long commute.

“I’m still in the testing mode,” Ng said. “If I can get the third house and not go bankrupt, it might work.”

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