One ‘Big’ break


A rendering of the Big Brothers Big Sisters Houston headquarters by Rice School of Architecture's Wortham Visiting Lecturer Tei Carpenter and her students, Adelina Koleva and Elizabeth Stanfel. The organization expects to break ground on the project early next year. Courtesy of Agency-Agency/Rice School of Architecture


Rice School of Architecture team delivers design for new Big Brothers Big Sisters headquarters 

A visiting lecturer and two students at the Rice School of Architecture (RSA) will look on with great interest as a new headquarters for the Houston chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters rises downtown next year.

They should — they designed it.

Over five intense weeks last summer, Tei Carpenter, a Wortham Visiting Lecturer at RSA, and fifth-year Bachelor of Architecture students Adelina Koleva and Elizabeth Stanfel conceptualized a new home for the Houston nonprofit organization that matches more than 2,000 youngsters with one-on-one mentors who guide them along the path to adulthood.

As impressive as that number may be, the demand for mentors is far greater than the organization can attract at its current HQ in a converted doctor’s office west of the 610 Loop.

Rice team

A Rice School of Architecture team led by Visiting Wortham Lecturer Tei Carpenter spent five weeks conceptualizing the new Big Brothers Big Sisters headquarters to be built in downtown Houston. From left, Carpenter and students Adelina Koleva and Elizabeth Stanfel. Photo by Cecilia K Scott-Stanfel

“Our national office has done studies on what it takes for someone to engage with Big Brothers Big Sisters as a volunteer: It takes about 18 hits (impressions),” said Pierce Bush, executive vice president of the Houston chapter. “So we feel like we’re missing the mark being in a part of town that isn’t visible to our potential volunteers.”

That will soon change, if all goes well. The organization had found a parcel just west of downtown and adjacent to Interstate 45 and was seeking an architect when Carpenter came to Bush’s attention through a family connection. Carpenter took on the two-year RSA post offered by Dean Sarah Whiting, the William Ward Watkin Professor of Architecture and one of her mentors for her Master of Architecture studies at Princeton, and arrived in the fall of 2013.

At a welcome-to-Houston dinner, Bush discovered Carpenter’s enthusiasm and training were a match for the project. “I threw out the idea and asked if she and her students would be willing to help us, if we could make it a Rice University thing,” he said.

The rest is about to be history. Carpenter secured summer research funding from the School of Architecture and hired two of her best students, undergraduates Koleva and Stanfel. Five intense weeks of brainstorming later, they had produced the design for a 20,000-square-foot building that will literally serve as a beacon for the growing program.

“It’s in this interesting spot between the Washington Avenue corridor, Buffalo Bayou and I-45,” said Carpenter, who has founded her own design firm, Agency-Agency. “It’s kind of an unusual place, but it’s near a population whose kids might be served by this community and it’s highly visible to Washington Avenue, I-45 and downtown. Visibility was one of the primary drivers for us.”

The three-story building for this United Way agency will include a dramatic atrium that encloses a community space, activity and interview rooms and a café downstairs and an outdoor deck and offices for staff upstairs. “A grandmother and a ‘little’ can come in and feel comfortable,” she said, explaining that in Big Brothers Big Sisters parlance, “littles” are the young clients and “bigs” are their adult mentors.

“Instead of feeling like you’re walking into an office building, there will be a feeling of community and openness as soon as you come in the door,” she said.

The distinctive jogged butterfly roof, Carpenter said, incorporates space for signage that leaves no doubt about the building’s purpose. Stanfel takes pride in that bit.


A model of the Big Brothers Big Sisters building produced at the Rice School of Architecture. The three-story building will serve the organization's current client base of 2,000 youngsters with room to grow. Courtesy of Agency-Agency/Rice School of Architecture

“I haven’t seen the construction documents, but one idea I had was the angled roof, that yellow wedge of signage that can be seen from I-45 and driving up from the other way,” said Stanfel, who is serving her preceptorship (architecture internship) year at New York architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which is working on Rice’s new opera theater.

Before putting pen to paper, Carpenter spent time at the current headquarters talking to the 35-member staff to get a sense of the workflow. With the half-acre site already locked down, the Rice team also had the luxury of investigating the neighborhood.

“I was incredibly impressed by the thoughtfulness with which they went into the site investigation, looking at angles from Washington Avenue and making sure that each side of the building faced, appropriately, one of these view corridors so it would serve as a 24/7 billboard,” Bush said.

At midpoint, the trio met with the Big Brothers Big Sisters team to go over three concepts and narrow down the design. “All of them were amazing,” Bush said. “It gave us the opportunity to say, ‘We like this about that one; we like that about this one,’ and take the best of the schematics to create the final project.”

Koleva, who is spending her preceptorship with Kohn, Pederson, Fox Architects in London, said the design process was fast but well-paced. “We had constant feedback, and that was very useful,” she said. “We worked very closely with Pierce and his team and got involved in every part of the process, which is unique for students. It exposed me to so many things that I wouldn’t expect to experience until later in my career.”

The project architect, Houston’s Three Square Design Group, is acquiring permits and preparing construction documents for the design that Big Brothers Big Sisters premiered at a recent gala. The project is expected to cost about $6 million, including land acquisition, and groundbreaking is planned for the first quarter of 2015.

“It’s hard to understand the speed at which this is happening,” Carpenter said. “We’re already getting into the nitty-gritty with permitting and finishing our construction documents. It’s a very unusual bit of turnover, but we’re working together to make sure our vision still exists in the building.”

Bush is confident the structure will help Big Brothers Big Sisters reach its five-year goal of serving 3,000 young Houstonians. With more than 800 children on the waiting list, he’s grateful for the community of contractors – including the Rice School of Architecture – offering their pro bono services to get the job done. Community engagement is one of Rice’s Priorities for the New Century.

“I love what I do because I get to see the goodness of people in Houston, whether it’s those who give their time to mentor at-risk kids and make their lives better forever, or those who see our vision and want to make it a reality. They know this building will help us increase our footprint in Houston.”

That first dinner with Carpenter wasn’t the start of the process, but it was certainly one of the highlights, Bush said.

“I feel so lucky that our path crossed with a young woman who will go on to lead an incredible career in architecture,” he said. “I jokingly say is that in 40 years, they won’t be able to tear this down because it’s going to be some sort of historical landmark.

“But seriously, she’s destined for great things. I feel like we’re getting Picasso’s first painting.”



About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.