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Rivers Barden Architects and Falon Land Studio Team Up to Create A True Houston Oasis

Get a Glimpse Inside The Boulevard Oaks Project

BY // 05.16.24

Cultivating a home’s aesthetic is an art, not a science. It’s made up of multiple components and considerations — how one lives, works, plays, and interacts with their surroundings. So, when Rivers Barden Architects and Falon Land Studio teamed up to engage on a special property on Boulevard Oaks, both the inside and outside experienced a revolutionary transformation that set a new standard for design in Houston.

Rivers Barden Architects and Falon Land Studio teamed up to engage on a special property on Boulevard Oaks.

About Rivers Barden

Rivers Barden is led by principals Kevin Barden and Joe Rivers. Barden and Rivers were apprentices at The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, Taliesin in Wisconsin, as well as at Taliesin West in Arizona, where Barden says they cultivated a love for integrating built and natural environments.

“In the midst of learning about architecture and ourselves, we lived in tents in the desert for months on end in Arizona, as well as helped maintain a half-acre garden for much of our produce and contributed to prairie restoration efforts in Wisconsin,” says Barden. “This visceral relationship between built and natural environments is something we carry tangible memories of when designing spaces and shaping dreams today.”

Barden says one of the firm’s key values and tenets is listening, which drives their work and design.

“If there’s a key element that runs through our work, it’s listening,” Barden explains. “Rhetorically, how do we speak with our ears and listen with our voices? The act of listening allows us to work on a wide variety of projects for a wide variety of clients. Inherently, this process tends to strengthen the conviction of design decisions made as a team of colleagues in collaboration with the client.”

In Texas, the pool is one of the most important spaces.

About Falon Land Studio

Falon Land Studio is led by Falon Mihalic, a landscape architect and public artist. Hailing from the hot and humid climate of the Florida panhandle, Mihalic attributes much of her design and style to growing up with this lush biodiversity. She also always designs from an experiential point of view. 

“When I am drawing up a planting plan, I am placing myself in the space and imagining how it might unfold throughout the day and seasons,” says Mihalic. “What does this garden look like after a heavy summer shower? How does it smell in the springtime? What is unique about the particular neighborhood and how does the garden design add to the specialness of the place?”

Using these two elements (an aptitude for lushness and an eye for experience), Mihalic creates unforgettable outdoor spaces, including at Boulevard Oaks.

Lush gardens decorate the property.

The Boulevard Oaks Project Process

When Rivers Barden Architects and Falon Land Studio were introduced to the Boulevard Oaks project, a few key objectives were outlined, including better engaging the existing house with the property in a more holistic manner, a larger garage, an expanded guest apartment, a covered walkway connecting the main residence to the garage, outdoor relaxation and entertainment areas, and enhanced configuration of structures to better enjoy the property.

“It quickly became apparent upon identifying these priorities that collaborating with a landscape architect — in particular, Falon — would be paramount to making this a successful project,” Barden says.

Upon engaging Falon Land Studio, Mihalic identified a few key changes of her own, including noting that a very small patio resided where the swimming pool is now, along with a grouping of two trees that cut the patio off from the rest of the yard. 

She explains that there was also an old garage with a small apartment above it that wasn’t in good condition, and there was no covered walkway between the garage and the main residence. She also identified a row of hedges at the front of the property along North Boulevard that was overgrown and made the house quite hidden from the street.

The two teams quickly got to work. Careful documentation of the existing conditions helped them define a language for the new structures to integrate with the main residence. Specifically, these included the brick-and-mortar details and datums, the use of copper roofing and cast stone accents, the proportions and configurations of the windows, as well as the subtle stepping and undulations of the main residence’s footprint. The teams then came together for an initial design charrette to discuss and sketch through ideas. 

Following this meeting, and further dialogue, two concepts were presented for review with the homeowners where different variables and considerations were tested. Working through the final iteration of the design, the relationship between the historic main residence and the new structures is made possible through the carefully considered placemaking qualities of the exterior gardens and spaces.

The Boulevard Oaks project sets a new standard for Houston living and design. (Photography by Leonid Furmansky)

From Mihalic’s perspective, the more the merrier.

“I design gardens from the standpoint of what is most climate and soil appropriate to the Southeast U.S., but also from the point of view that a garden should have a level of delightful lushness,” explains Mihalic. “That was the impetus behind the azalea garden with the water feature and the intensity of planting. Yes, a Birch grove and a mixed bed of azaleas and perennials can absolutely fit in one side yard. Designing a densely planted space tends to create an experience of abundance of the natural world. There are so many textures and patterns and, of course, colors! Let’s stuff them all together and celebrate their beauty. I love celebrating azaleas because they are such a fun Southern garden cultural phenomenon. The Dutch have their tulips and we Southerners have azaleas in every color.”

She also notes that the property’s gardens were structured thematically into an outdoor dining court, azalea garden, a reading garden, and a poolside lounge. The plants featured are diverse — from the crescent-shaped part-shade azalea garden underneath the existing mature live oaks to the specimen weeping willows whose slender branches lazily brush the front lawn. The smaller trees selected included multi-stem birch trees that create dappled shade and have a textured peeling bark, along with a tight grid of Arbequina Olives that make a formalized outdoor dining court.

“For the Boulevard Oaks project, I thought it was important to create just the right density of hedge to frame the gardens while still giving a little air and space to let the landscape breathe, with some open lawn and poolside sunning areas,” Mihalic states.

A true oasis, indeed.