What can we learn from a Dallas architect’s dream house? The details matter
I’m not checking too many houses in this room; I prefer to focus on public buildings that have a broader impact on the city. I’m also a little hesitant about single-family homes – although I live in one a bit hypocritically – as most progressive urban planners will tell you that the shape is less than ideal from a sustainability and equity standpoint. As a rule, we should build apartment buildings and place them in close proximity to public transport.
However, sometimes a house comes on the market that is so special that it requires attention, not just because it is exemplary on its own terms, but because it shows ways that we can use conventional ideas about how to understand and build one Rethink house and general architecture.
This house, which Dallas architect Dan Shipley designed for himself and his wife Lea Bauman, is relatively modest, but the level of its features contrasts with its size.
Lea Bauman in the front window of her home in Cochran Heights.(| Mark Lamster)
This modesty extends outward; It’s not a house that attracts attention. In terms of style, it’s a beast of its own that fits into a tradition of regional Texan modernity that can be traced back through Frank Welch, O’Neil Ford, and David R. Williams. “You can call it modern, but it’s really very traditional,” says Shipley. “I try not to separate these things too much.”
From the street it is modest, a collection of rectangles made of beige St. Joe brick with a recessed entrance and a hipped roof that towers over it like a triangular cap. Its characteristic feature is the wide, vertically divided picture window, which marks a front living room and is shaded from the outside by a horizontally protruding aluminum awning.
It’s unique but fits in with its neighbors in Cochran Heights, a small neighborhood of single-family homes south of Henderson Avenue and east of I-75. It’s the type of community that has been the backbone of the Dallas middle class since its development in the years before World War II, and it has a history of architectural quirks with a number of fairytale cottages designed by architect Charles Dilbeck.
The Shipley Bauman residence fits into the Cochran Heights neighborhood, a modern house with traditional roots.(| Mark Lamster)
The Shipley Bauman residence is different from the standard homes in Dallas and the rest of the country. Most of the houses, including those clad with bricks, have wooden frames. that is, supported by a skeleton made of wooden beams. Shipley’s thick brick walls are load-bearing, which means that they actually support the weight of the house and are laterally stabilized by concrete pillars visible from the back of the house.
Glass blocks allow diffuse light into the entrance area of the house. Thick, load-bearing walls of wood-molded St. Joe brick from Pearl River, Louisiana can be seen throughout the house.(Michael Hamtil / employee photographer)
It was so unusual that the masons who were brought in to build these walls had difficulty keeping them straight. “Dan asked the masons to build a wall and they were amazed,” says Bauman.
The architect worked with several craftsmen on the hanging metal frame that held open shelves in the kitchen, offering natural light and a view of a quiet side courtyard.(Michael Hamtil / employee photographer)
This was an anomaly during the construction process that was a collaborative effort within the local construction industry. It’s hard to imagine that there could be a serious metalworker or carpenter who in some way had no hand in the house.
“I know all of these people and I know what anyone can do,” says Shipley. This is the benefit of a history of working together as a design-build architect. Working with the city’s elite artisans, he was able to rely on creative, detailed fittings, such as a free-standing bookcase in the living room of Cody Iley (a former employee) or pitch black iron fittings by Brent Anderson. The day-to-day construction was led by longtime employee David Robbins.
Working with a handpicked group, however, was also a matter of practical economics – “a cash flow thing” – that allowed Shipley to spread the work out when he could pay for it, rather than contracting it out at a no-nonsense rate.
“It seldom happens that an architect can build his own house, and one reason we could do that is because I can do a lot of things, like as a general contractor,” he says. “Getting the architect and general contractor to work for free is really good business – but sometimes they are slow.”
The morning light falls through a perforated steel screen and casts shadows on a wooden ventilation door that opens to let fresh air into the house. The ventilation slots also allow noises from the neighborhood, while a close-meshed bronze sieve prevents insects.(Michael Hamtil / employee photographer)
That could be an understatement. The two bedroom house took two years to build, but some of its elements have evolved over decades. Shipley had kept a supply of glass blocks that he and his then-roommate at the architecture school – Dallas architect Gary “Corky” Cunningham – had taken from a convicted hospital building in Austin in the 1970s. “We went and asked if we could have them and went up the stairwells and hit them off,” he says. Now a stack of these blocks brings subtle lighting to his entrance foyer.
This delicacy, a combination of the materiality of the glass block and the immateriality of the light that penetrates it, makes the house something special and points to an architectural philosophy that avoids the idea of building as a mere commodity. Shipley doesn’t like to talk about the “characteristics” of a home, the menu of items you might find in a property listing: cathedral ceilings, granite countertops, walk-in closets, a pool.
“There are no features,” he says of the house. “It’s just about the actual construction and manufacture. I enjoy the dignity of building … it’s all about the materials, the tactile properties and the light. “
It is an architecture of the process, of improvisation.
“He started and figured it out along the way,” says Bauman. “He came home and said, ‘I thought I had a whole new way of doing the kitchen.’ There was a lot of that. “
LEFT: A floating light hangs above the dining table in an area that is backed by a smooth, wood-paneled surface that separates the public front rooms from the private rooms on the first floor. RIGHT: At the back of the divider are built-in bookshelves in a den with a fireplace.(Michael Hamtil / employee photographer)
Much of this thought manifests itself in a multitude of subtle details that make function an aesthetic virtue: wedge-shaped skirting boards that give off rainwater on the outside and dust on the inside; beveled edges on the seams between panels to hide slight misalignments; an iron-framed kitchen island topped with matching mesquite boards cut from a single block; a “sleeping veranda” made of colorful patterned tiles from the Dominican Republic.
The architect Dan Shipley poses in one of the Dutch doors, the top and bottom of which swing separately. To keep insects out, but let in air and noise, a hidden “pocket” screen door is pushed out of the wall.(Michael Hamtil / employee photographer)
In other hands this seems like an over-design – especially the use of so many types of wood. However, the application is so nifty that its integration becomes a staple of the design, showing how one element (a fir window shutter) is combined with another (the ipe frame it sits in) and a third (a steel grille) can to create something extraordinary: a window sequence that casts shadow patterns on a palette of warm tones.
“This house is full of things that were cooking that I wanted to do,” says Shipley.
He still has some of these things to do. Even though he and Bauman have moved in, it’s not quite finished yet. The arched shed roof over the driveway is unfinished, as is a room that will soon become an office. A guest house in the background is mostly finished, but still needs to be refined.
“It looks simple and obvious, but it takes a lot of planning,” says Shipley. “The more time you have, the more concise you can be.”
It’s a good lesson, a vision of architecture that says a house is more than a packaged good; but a product of reflection and craftsmanship, attention to detail and materiality. These are the timeless virtues of building, and they are worth celebrating.
CORRECTION, 10.15am, February 7th, 2020: In an earlier version of this story, Cody Iley’s last name was misspelled.