Lessons Learned 1

Written by: Norman Ward, FAIA

The idea of architects designing and building their own home became real and very personal to me as I went through the process of building my house. I came away with a renewed appreciation and excitement in architecture. I will share stories about what I learned building my own house and acknowledge the one thing I learned the most was to open my eyes to understand the things around me and how these things are becoming a source for creativity.


This is a view from the top of a hill where my house is placed in Cresson, Texas. A few years ago, one of my clients took me to this hilltop, which was apart of his brother’s and his dad’s ranch. This hilltop was my client’s favorite place on the ranch. Two years later, their father called me and told me to go to the ranch and pick out a home site. They were in the process of developing a small residential community on a portion of the ranch, which included this hilltop. I knew exactly the place I wanted to build my house, this hilltop.


I am fascinated with the landscape and terrain. There are five types of prairie grasses throughout this region. One is called Bluestem. I eventually named my house Bluestem. I spent a lot of time out hear before building my house. It took two more years before I was financially able to begin building my house. There were many conversations with the tradesmen about the design and quality of construction goals before beginning construction. This was the beginning of this type of conversations; I now carry to all projects.


This is the site plan. North is to your right. I decided to place four pavilions under a single roof canopy. Three of the pavilions are separated by breezeways. The reasoning came from the almost constant southern breeze flowing across the hilltop in the spring and summer. The idea was to allow the breeze to flow through the house. I became amazed with this connection to the hilltop.


This is one of the breezeways on the west end of the house. My studio pavilion is to the right. This is where I work. One of the two bedrooms is to the left. We are looking to the south. You can see the rolling hills beyond. I cut a hole in the roof above each breezeway. They are sunlight portals. The sunlight is constantly in motion within these breezeways. In the morning the sunlight falls on the walls facing to the east, by mid day the sunlight moves across the ground, and by the afternoon, the sunlight in moving up the walls facing west. This was my beginning to understand an awareness of time. I raised the walkway under the roof canopy. The bridge became a threshold connecting the landscape on the south with the landscape on the north.


These are scattered weathered limestone in the ravines leading down to the creek. These colors became my color pallet for my house. The grey became the color of my CMU and the cream, the color of my stucco. There are rocks with Lichen living on the surface. The rust color became the third color in my color pallet. So here is an image with the color pallet: the grey CMU, the cream stucco, and the weathered steel porch structure.


I am always amazed how the sunlight enters my house. In the living room areas, the light is much softer. This is partially due to the north facing window wall. But the deep porch is really what contributes to the soft light. You might notice the perforated screen on the porch structure. This image shows the screen best. The screen is facing due west. There is also a screen on the east end of the porch. The sun rises and sets much further north in the summer months; so the direct sunlight was coming into the house from the sides of the porch. So I added the perforated metal screen. This filtered the direct sunlight and the light inside became much softer. A fireplace open to both sides was eliminated due to cost and this wall came in its place. For me, this ended up being a good solution. I learned there are many solutions for the issue. In this case a separation between rooms. I have always seen this hallway as my third breezeway separating the living room pavilion from the bedroom pavilion. All I did was enclose both ends with glass for a conditioned space. I wanted to clearly show the dimensional aspects of the veneers, so I exposed the edges of the CMU and Stucco. I also exposed the underside of the structural insulated roof panels in the hallway, a hint to the structural construction. The glu-lam beams are the structural support for the SIPS. A portion of the glu-lams are exposed in the breezeways. This is my doorbell. My contractor asked where to run the wiring for a doorbell. I told him not to install any wiring for a doorbell. I told him that someday I would find another solution instead of having a bell ring inside the house. About two years later I decided on an outdoor musical instrument. I contacted a person in Maine to designed and fabricate my doorbell.


Landscape is an on going project. In the early stages I meet with the landscape designer and we discussed the materials that would blend into the surroundings; landscape materials that would be believable for this hilltop. We installed plants like these yucca that were already present on the site and plantings that might survive with little care. We continued the plantings into the breezeways: as if the landscape flowed through the house, connecting the north and south sides of the hilltop. When I talked with the landscape person about the planting area separating the porch from the living and kitchen pavilion; I said I wanted to feel like a quail in the brush. The idea was about nesting in this vast open landscape beyond. This idea continued into my Studio. This image was taken before I completely moved my office into the studio pavilion. There is a small courtyard separating the landscape from the pavilion. The concrete wall is four feet tall, about eye level to the landscape.


I found new ways of assigning meaning. For the very first time, I discovered I could pull the color pallet for material selections from the site. And in doing so, I found a connection with the landscape. And within my house, I saw sunlight passing through and the change of light and shadow throughout the day. This gave me an awareness of time. I carry these thoughts into the selected works. Going through this process from a client’s perspective, dealing not only with design but also dealing with budgetary constraints and the logistics of construction gave me a renewed perspective and empathy of what clients go through. When I talk with clients, these are the same ideas we talk about. And this all began with my house.