Be Sure to ‘Like’ My House

Be Sure to ‘Like’ My House

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Julien Meyrat
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Julien Meyrat


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Be Sure to ‘Like’ My House: Trends and Challenges in Residential Design in the Digital Age

When individuals build new homes, they have access to a wider range of information than ever before. From television to magazines, and especially on the internet, an unceasing torrent of images full of landscape and architectural ideas find a captive audience. Does this abundance of visual sources affect the way architects design residential projects? Does the new media favor trendiness over a slower, more considered design approach? We invited five of the leading residential designers in Dallas to share their experiences of working with clients within the current social landscape. Each describes the issues he or she deals with in practice—and the core values they maintain.

Interviews conducted by Julien Meyrat, AIA.


Gary Cunningham, FAIA

Cunningham Architects

"I wanted to use these pictures to express the collaboration that occurred between our client, Sistie Stollenwerck, and our office. Sistie pushed us to explore materiality and space that connected the house to the site. The earthen mound with the red cedar trees (in exterior shot), for example, was an important existing element we wanted to connect with. Not many clients in this neighborhood would keep such a rough landscape element. Sistie was totally cool with it. She did, after all, ask for a treehouse and not a house."


Do your clients immediately talk about architectural style? Do they come up with names to describe stylistic combinations (i.e. “Country French”)? Do you encourage or discourage talking about style with the client?

Some clients communicate in such ways and some do not. We don’t encourage or discourage, we simply want them to talk to us in a way they are most comfortable.

The phenomena of the “tear-down” has become a major feature in the development of private residences in Dallas. Do you tend to support tearing down an existing house if a client demands it or do you tend to try to make a case to renovate and expand?

We always support reuse of old stuff if feasible. It makes things interesting and we get to connect to the past. Sometimes that does not work out, and yes, we listen to our clients’ wishes. Most, however, trust in us to lead them on the journey.

How much consideration do clients give to the idea that their home should relate to the existing character of the neighborhood? How strongly do they insist on emulating a home they saw in a magazine or on a website?

We see some use images from magazines or websites to explain aspects or characteristics of the homes they desire and we encourage that. We are very fortunate that most of our clients enjoy working through a design process that absolutely includes understanding and responding to the existing character of a neighborhood. When we discuss context and character, we include aspects like topography and vegetation and place them on equal footing with architecture and design.

Beyond building a shelter unique to the household, the design of home also communicates social aspirations of the client. How much of a role does “keeping up with the Joneses” play in the final built product?

While we may have seen some of this behavior in the distant past, we do not see a lot of that stuff now. There is a lot of conversation around the culture of the client(s) and how the new home can reinforce that. But I also suspect there can be some of the “keeping up” stuff nagging them in their subconscious.

How much are design trends and fashions thrust upon the architect by the client, and how much are those factors guided by the architects themselves?

Design trends are not very important to us, nor to most of our clients, so this is not a big factor in the work we do. Our clients are happy to let us lead them in a somewhat logical process of design that does not center on such things. We are very lucky to have such trust.

Print magazines about residential lifestyle (e.g. Architectural Digest, Dwell) are driven by fashion. How important are these magazines in imposing the value of fashion in your conversation with clients?

Pretty much of no importance to our process. If a client wants to show us a picture to explain their thoughts, cool. We rarely use such imagery to explain stuff; we tend to focus on substantive issues of place and culture that are not fashion-driven.

From a certain perspective, a house functions like clothing in that it uses an envelope that not only protects, but also projects an overall attitude to the world: formal/casual; invisible/bold. How important is it for clients to make a statement, and do you tend to encourage or discourage this?

The statement or attitude that a house makes is the culmination of many factors that go into the design of the house. The final “look” is hopefully one that projects in a straightforward and honest manner. We absolutely discuss these things and we all have to be on the same page.

Joshua Nimmo, AIA

Nimmo Architecture

Center: “Here are some shots of a two-family dwelling we did in Dallas. This was an urban infill project. In particular, this project was successful in the way that it controlled views yet was still connected to the exterior in an urban environment”. // Right: “Here’s a photo of a mechanic’s shop I came across in Dallas. I love structures that have a story … those that are genuine, authentic to their purpose. While it isn’t a home, it’s similar in scale and definitely serve as inspiration.”


How much are design trends and fashions thrust upon the architect by the client, and how much are those factors guided by the architects themselves?

Usually, our clients are looking for something they will describe as timeless: something that is not heavily influenced by trends that will inevitably fall out of fashion. We do however recognize trends and fashion as part of our context—reflections of our time. We do not look at trends as inherently negative or positive, but rather ask why they have emerged.

How have cable television such as HGTV and websites such as Houzz about home renovation and design influenced the way a client communicates their needs and wants on their project?

These outlets have streamlined communication in my view. They can be used as a point of reference to discuss many aspects of design including details, budgets, etc. I believe it’s the architect’s job to set expectations while leading the direction of the design; communication in whatever form is critical to that process.

How does the notion of context apply to the way your firm practices the art of residential design?

“Context” is a BIG word. To us, it is much more than the physical setting (the site). The tangible conditions and surroundings of the site including topography, neighboring structures, local climate, etc. These all play lead roles in the story of a project. But there are many other forces that play a part in the narrative. Generally speaking, we call these “design forces” and recognize that a big part of our role is to understand, manage, and coordinate them. Sometimes these forces are not immediately obvious and need to be discovered. An important part of our process is discovering the context. This includes a lot of study and research, and asking a lot of questions. The clients’ needs, aspirations, and budget, as well as the contractor’s capabilities, should all have a voice in the final outcome. Still, there are other considerations: available materials, existing structures to be reused, and sustainable strategies/technologies.

So, there is the tangible context of a project, but do these more discernable forces complete the picture? What about those less palpable but no less important? How will the design be experienced through time? What emotions should be evoked through space, form, acoustics, etc.? When creating something, making a statement is inevitable. What should be said? Should it be whispered or yelled?

Are the answers to these questions part of the context? We often compare the design process to the traditional process of developing a photo in a dark room. In the early stages, we only have a faint image of what the project will become. As we move through the process, solutions reveal themselves.

Ron Wommack, FAIA

Ron Wommack Architect

Center and Right: “Oriented on an east-west axis, the simple, two-level volume engages with a deep linear garden through an engawa. The red color with raw concrete and ipe decking engage and enmesh the structure within its context—almost disappearing into it. An engawa is typically a wooden strip of floor immediately before windows and storm shutters inside traditional Japanese rooms. Recently, this term has also come to mean the veranda outside the room as well.”


How much consideration do clients give to the idea that their homes should relate to the existing character of the neighborhood? How strongly do clients insist on emulating a home they saw in a magazine or on a website?

Today's process for designing a home often starts with the style dialogue. Is it going to be a traditional, modern, mid-century modern, soft-contemporary, craftsman, or a hybrid? No matter the era, style is first and foremost.

Before the process of design even begins, clients have consumed hundreds, maybe thousands, of images and ideas thru publications, social media, and by visiting projects, which is the preferred method, of course. This preparation is necessary. Not only does it inform clients of what is out there and available, but it also speaks to trends, which isn't always a bad thing.

Home design has advanced in so many ways: an enriched connection to the outdoors manifested in the increased usage of glass and of sliding glass walls, pivoting front doors that make a grand statement to guests, and media rooms that represent our unflinching obsession with media and ironically a disconnect with nature.

Energy awareness and sustainability are also top-of-mind trends used in the design process. These include one-inch insulated low-e glass, shading devices and porches, foam insulation, light-colored or reflective roofing materials, low-maintenance materials, and components that contain no volatile chemicals. These are simply elements to start to understand what a smart house is.

Houses are really about tailoring a client's needs and aspirations into a beautiful environment, one that secures and shelters and allows for day-dreaming and contemplation. But I also like to think they have a higher responsibility than just accommodation. Juhani Pallasmaa reminds us that a house is a metaphysical instrument, a mystical tool with which we try to introduce a reflection of eternity into our momentary existence.

So critical to this principle is the context/site. The goal is to understand what it offers as far as its orientation to the earth and the resulting quality of light, shade, wind, and views. What materials seem appropriate and have meaning, and are not just a collage of the latest trends? What kind of conceptual idea connects and enhances the site's qualities? The house should literally emerge from its context, enhancing and establishing place. This for me is the cosmological connection, an almost disappearing of the structure into the context.

For me, trends are but an obsession of the moment. We must learn to be discerning about what is of value and involves the intelligence of making, and learn to discard what is just another momentary distraction.

Patricia Magadini, AIA

Bernbaum/Magadini Architects

Center: Meaders residence by Bernbaum-Magadini: “I love the play of light on the large planes of stone broken up by walls of glass. The softer roof line allows it to blend in nicely with its neighbors.” // Right: Brown Residence by Lake Flato: “I love the way this house sits in its harsher desert landscape. Large windows with wide protective overhangs.”


The phenomena of the “tear-down” has become a major feature in the development of private residences in Dallas. Do you tend to support tearing down an existing house if a client demands it or do you tend to try to make a case to renovate and expand?

I have been practicing residential architecture in Dallas for 35 years. At the beginning of my career, I worked for Thomas & Booziotis. The firm had many addition/renovation projects in the Park Cities and surrounding neighborhoods. During the 1980s, it seemed there was more of a trend toward renovating some of the beautiful older homes in those neighborhoods. Downing and Bill had a gift for creating wonderful renovations. Since I began my own firm with Bruce Bernbaum, we have seen a bit of a shift toward new construction.

I think there are several reasons for that shift. Technology and lifestyles have changed. People want smart homes, energy-efficient homes, and homes that fit their lifestyle. Formal living areas are becoming less important, as are formal dining areas for some families. More open floor plans are desired for a family-oriented, casual lifestyle.

Land values have increased significantly and many developers want to maximize the return on their investment by building large homes on small lots. Sometimes the easiest way to achieve that is to scrap the older home and start fresh. Often during a remodel, as walls are being torn out and opened up, problems are discovered such as aluminum wiring, outdated HVAC systems, rotted wood, or plumbing issues. New construction allows for a more seamless construction process for a contractor. Unfortunately, this builder trend has led to some beautiful architecturally significant homes being torn down.

The economics of remodeling versus tearing down are sometimes tricky. It sometimes makes economic sense to spend a little more money to build a new home with new infrastructure than to save a house that has no redeeming qualities. If an existing home has architectural significance or “good bones” and a client’s program is accommodated with a remodel or addition, we will recommend renovating the house. If the program requirements change so much of the existing house that there is very little of it left—or if the home is in terrible disrepair—we will recommend tearing down or finding a home to remodel that better aligns with the ultimate goals.

Several years ago, I worked with a family that was looking for a mid-century modern home. I went to look at several houses with them before we finally found one. It had terrible drive-up appeal. A monstrous carport had been added to the front of the house in the late ‘70s, but the “bones” of the house were amazing. It was a diamond in the rough. The original house had a great floor plan, some interesting finishes, and beautiful walls of glass, but it was too small and needed modernizing. We tore off the front carport and added about 1,000 square feet of new construction as well as updates that maintained the style of the original home. A lovely piece of architecture was preserved and a modern family home was created.

Richard Davis

Richard Drummond Davis Architect

Above: “The house was designed for Mary Sailer and her two children. I picked it because I have travelled extensively in Normandy, France, seeking out the incredible mixed material, tapestry-like façades of the romantic vernacular architecture of its medieval manor houses. When I stand next to the front façade of this house I designed in Highland Park and look up, I am transported to Normandy. I think the house is one of the best I have designed and it is a petite 3,500 square feet.”


Do your clients immediately talk about architectural style?

Most of our clients have a look in mind for the outside of their new house or remodel. I have evolved a unique personal expression can be described as “modern” or “contemporary,” and five of the homes I have designed in this style have been built. However, many of our clients desire houses that have eclectic or period-style appearances. I tell them to take or find photos of the exteriors of houses they like.

How much are design trends and fashions thrust upon the architect by the client, and how much of those factors are guided by the architects themselves?

Only about half of our clients are concerned with having an imposing residence. Some want their new houses to look big for drive-up resale value. One of my best clients ever had me design a house on a double lot on Overhill Drive in Highland Park. He wanted to turn the house lengthwise on the lot to open up to the side yard, making the front façade narrow so as to look small from the street. I designed an English Arts and Crafts style house—all out of a beautiful buff-colored, wood-molded brick with trim accents in rose-colored brick. It is still just as charming and romantic as ever.

Print magazines about residential lifestyle (e.g. Architectural Digest, Dwell, etc.) are driven by fashion. How important are these magazines in imposing the value of fashion in your conversations with clients?

The only design trends I incorporate are good ones. Happily, no one has asked me to make a “transitional” design by sticking together an agglomeration of white stucco or brick boxes with hip and gable roofs. I suppose I could do that with a twist, or take that style in a different direction. Mostly, our clients select attractive materials because most of our clients have good taste. I put my foot down when they go for fake wood grain in any material that’s not wood or fake stone—and I hate anything in gray, dark brown, or black, except maybe charcoal gray as an accent.

How important is it for clients to make a statement, and do you tend to encourage or discourage this?

I design beautiful, well-proportioned, well-detailed houses. I prefer romantic, asymmetrical—but balanced compositions and appearances—over formal, symmetrical ones, so I do encourage clients not to go for imposing, pompous homes. However, it is always a challenge and fun to work out the requirements of today’s floor plan programs in a symmetrical façade and get the syncopated rhythm of the forms and the proportions of the forms to look good.


Julien Meyrat, AIA is an architect with Gensler.

More photos and select comments from these residential architects can be found here. Does home design communicate social aspirations? Do soaring land values impact today’s home designs? Is house design influenced by the need to “keep up with the neighbors?”