The Big Hair Houses

The Big Hair Houses

Julien Meyrat
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Julien Meyrat

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The Big Hair Houses: Our Typical Suburban Residential Development Has Little To Do With North Texas

Much like Chicago and Los Angeles a century before, the Dallas-Fort Worth region is at the epicenter of massive commercial and demographic expansion. The region’s pro-business environment and its entrepreneurial culture has made famous those innovative risk-takers who pioneered advances in technology, creating global companies known for professional and financial services, telecommunications, transportation, and energy. Given its current success, the Dallas area is an example of what the contemporary aspirational city in America should look like.

From afar, it seems to live up to that expectation: A modern downtown skyline defined by shimmering curtain wall, colorful lights, and breathtaking structures by Pritzker prize-winning architects. But when looking closer into the way people of the region live, a contrary picture emerges: multi-gabled pitched roofs, double-height entry arches, Palladian windows with fake shutters, and brick veneer with ornamental quoins at the corners. Shouldn’t our neighborhoods reflect the forward-looking technological culture that defines the livelihood of the people who work here? Why this paradox?

Like many other cities in America’s South and West, the DFW metroplex experienced massive urban and suburban expansion the decades following World War II. This growth was accommodated in large part by auto-centric infrastructure and exclusionary zoning that prevented density and mixed use. The suburban neighborhood typology as we know it took shape, consisting of boundless acres of subdivisions with houses almost equally spaced within their own lots, often designed from a limited set of plans and built quickly with wood framing and concrete slab-on-grade foundations. 

Photo credit: Cindy Smith, AIA

Sidewalks increasingly disappeared as streets were intended for cars, not for pedestrians. Community amenities such as schools and parks—situated as objects on a landscape instead of defining urban spaces in-between—become accessible almost exclusively by car. As a result, much of the suburban fabric suffers from an imposing uniformity. 

After a half-century of this kind of development, what are the results? Subdivisions continue to grow larger, but lots have continued to shrink as a means of increasing the monetary yield of the land. At the same time, average households have increased their appetites for an appearance of grandeur and ever more space, leading to homes becoming much taller in proportion, with two-story-entries, voluminous living space with high ceilings and lots of windows, some far beyond reach. Once spacious private backyards are now patches of grass, just large enough for water- and energy-guzzling swimming pools. Houses of today show a decidedly two-dimensional architectural treatment, employing nicer finish materials of brick and limestone at the front, while the sides and back of the house are clad in cheap siding. Their often fussy, asymmetrical massings of multiple roof gables, turrets, and arched windows betray a mish-mash of English & French Victorian styles. Yet those considerations are secondary, says Ryan Miller, director of planning and zoning for the city of Rockwall, a fast-growing suburb east of Dallas. 

Typical suburban houses in Texas borrow from English and French Victorian styles with little regard to their context. Photo credit: Cindy Smith, AIA

“If you ask many of our residents what influenced their move to Rockwall, you will find that things like schools, proximity, and amenities rank high on their list,” he said. “Many people choose their community before they choose their home.” 

The architectural amalgam of vertically monumental proportions characterizes this popular North Texas residential style. At times called “Big Hair” or “Giraffe homes,” the style is authentic to some contemporary people’s image of what a home should look like—yet it transcends any impulse to be authentic to the spirit of the times.

“Architecture is rooted in deeply treasured meanings that are difficult to dismiss, even at this point in the 21st century. For example, how the gabled roof is both a sign and a symbol of shelter and home,” said Kevin Sloan, Hon. AIA Dallas, ASLA. “Like it or not, many of the meanings endure. Even a child seems to understand this in making a drawing of a house.”

Does the style command any authenticity with regards to the local climate? As it happens, Dallas lies on the same latitude as Cairo, a city defined the world over by extreme heat and blinding daylight. Historically, Texans adapted by incorporating porches, dog-runs, thick masonry walls, and low-slung roof profiles to combat the sun. The current “Big Hair” style ignores this heritage, along with most basic site considerations, such as the path of the sun, prevailing breezes, or any cues in the landscape that could enhance a home’s energy performance. 

Rather than performance, the North Texas residential style is evidence of fulfilling mere wants and desires of a consumer-driven market that places value on superficial features. As architects know well, most housing stock today is not the result of an exclusive relationship between the owner, a site, the architect, and the builder; rather each of those parties contributes separately towards a commodity product that balances a list of consumer wants with affordability. Capital institutions and lenders favor the residential developments where all things are easily quantifiable for a predictable rate of return. Given these factors, housing in the U.S. and in the DFW region is largely defined by large, highly capitalized homebuilders that provide a readily available consumer product, marketed much in the same way as cars—basic components (engine, chassis, body) complemented with an assortment of options. 

Like other types of consumer goods, branding is important, and homebuilders promote a brand to differentiate their products from those of their competitors. Since these homes are intended for the mass market, where price is the primary driver, a brand name is far more effective than the name of the person responsible for the home or community’s design. 

“This is interesting to note that car manufacturers use pre-set plans developed by internal designers so they can market and deliver a consistent product at a reasonable price,” said John Egnatis, CEO of Grenadier Homes, a Dallas-based homebuilder. “A chain or fast-food restaurant operates similarly. Production builders operate the same way with pre-designed plans by in-house architects so they can market and deliver at a reasonable price. However, you find more sophisticated design and materials usage when a luxury custom builder teams up with a custom home architect, much the same way a high-end chef teams up with or owns a high-end restaurant.” 

In spite of the difficulty for architects to perpetuate their own brand, there is an opportunity for them to bring their skills as creative problem-solvers on larger scale. Though it admittedly feels fulfilling for architects to put their personal touches on dwellings, it makes it difficult to significantly impact how everyday people acquire and live in their homes. For our profession to change the way our neighborhoods look, we need to adapt and work within the rules of the consumer-driven housing market to better address the needs of the middle-class.

A typical Dallas “big hair” house dwarfs its ranch-style neighborhood. Photo credit: Michael Cagle, Assoc. AIA 

Sloan suggests: “It could be useful and potentially productive for architectural practice to understand and accept how development financing, mortgage companies, home-building industries, and construction trades have synchronized. Any attempt to modify a builder home with design conceits that are outside industry norms is going to disrupt the process and make the building more expensive and time-consuming to realize.”

Architects who have a deeply felt concern for more carefully considered housing for the middle class must find ways to integrate themselves into the commercial homebuilder system that controls much of the single-family housing options throughout North Texas. Homebuilder companies are not averse to input from architects, and some actually welcome it, so long as it promises a profitable outcome and offers solutions that are workable and affordable. 

Egnatis admits that the homebuilder business model tends to prioritize high-volume production. “This model may change, because better design can create more value, which in turn allows for more affordability through innovation in how we live,” he said. “An example may be a carport that is very artistically designed and that may double as an outdoor play area for the kids and provide a shaded place at the front to the home when not occupied by the car. This would be less expensive and more attractive than a two-car garage and have a dual purpose. We need more creative thinking in the field.”

Photo credit: Cindy Smith, AIA

The best way of bringing about progressive residential design and neighborhood planning is by creating a built alternative that is inviting, coherent, comprehensive, and compelling. Fortunately, this has been done before. 

In 1927, new and forward-looking ideas about dwelling were on public display, and in three months more than 500,000 visitors came to discover the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, Germany. Organized by young Mies Van der Rohe, leading avant-garde architects of Europe such as Walter Gropius, Hans Scharoun, and Le Corbusier introduced people to an alternative in residential living that promoted abundant daylight and optimized functionality and ease of construction, with all 21 homes built in only five months.

Responding to the challenge of providing practical housing options in the 1920s, Weissenhof Estate participants J.J.P. Oud (top) and Hans Scharoun (bottom) designed homes that dramatically reimagined what a home could look like, incorporating abundant daylight and the latest mechanical systems. Photo credit: SHAQSPEARE

We need a contemporary equivalent, one that responds to the sophisticated consumer mindset that encapsulates our 21st century culture. Miller believes that the look and feel of our neighborhoods will only change if people are presented firsthand with alternatives: “In my estimation, the main obstacle in developing a residential subdivision that incorporates modern design, sustainable landscaping, and diverse architecture is the lack of a viable example in this region,” he said. “It has been my experience that developers and lenders have typically taken the ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ approach to residential subdivisions. This means that as long as traditional housing models continue to sell at increasingly higher prices, there is no incentive for a developer or builder to spend the money required to redesign their product.”

A prototype neighborhood must instill a need in buyers that they didn’t before realize, but soon learn that they can’t live without. A concept is needed that is similar to what Apple did for the mobile phone and what Tesla has been doing for cars. Both of those companies understand the importance of making a product that is not exclusive, but accessible to everyone. 

An innovative subdivision must go beyond mere drawings or animations and be built to allow people to interact with it, to imagine living in a home that embodies the collective values of art, functionality, and sustainability shared by today’s architects. Such a model community performs the same purpose as a test-drive, allowing someone to actually experience a product. It is through this direct engagement that higher quality, more responsive residential options will become available in our region.

Julien Meyrat, AIA is a senior designer at Gensler.