John Smith is hoping to start a housing mini-revolution in Houston. And he's already paid some activist dues. After graduating from architecture school, he cast off for Germany to build prototype houses from discarded shipping containers. Now back on native soil and toiling for a commercial firm, Smith has a similar goal of creating compact, yet nicely detailed housing stateside. "My work in Germany got me interested in architect-driven development, with design at the forefront, for small-scale houses in urban neighborhoods," he says.

At a foreclosure auction two years ago, Smith purchased a vacant 38-foot-by-100-foot lot in a local downtown neighborhood and began outlining his own prototype for small, urban, sustainably built, and beautifully designed houses people could actually afford. The 2,400-square-foot house will serve ash is private residence for now. However, to meet the prototype's target marketin the $250,000 to $300,000 price range, Smith has designed it with three bedrooms and two baths. He's also working to acquire thre eempty lots adjacent to the house, now under construction.

Smith's father, David Smith (owner of Vision Contracting of Houston), helps tow the ultra-tight budget of $80 per square foot as construction progresses. Going green can hike up costs, so they scrutinize every spec carefully to make sure it offers the most environmental bang for the buck. Smith says production and shipping costs often determine which materials get the green light. So far, soy-based stains, decomposed granite for sidewalks and driveways, and recycled wood decking have made the cut.

Of course, battling Texas heat and humidity requires a lot of energy, so Smith has worked to make his house as naturally cool as possible. Large openings (filled with high-efficiency glazing) face north to let in natural light without the heat gain, and the U-shaped layout makes for easy water-harvesting at a central point. Preserving existing trees will also help keep things cool.