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The House by the Pond
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

While hiking through a forest, you come upon a tiny brook. So you stop in your tracks to gaze at the stream and listen to its soft ripple.

?I?m not sure what it is about water that causes us to do that but I think it?s fairly universal, particularly in a semi-arid place like Dallas,? said architect, Max Levy, AIA. ?There is something primal about that sound that we universally seem to find very soothing. I think we all have this yearning, and we are so removed from nature these days, increasingly so, that I think most people are somewhat relieved when architecture can restore that relationship a bit.? Restored in an unexpected way seems to have an even greater impact.

?The expected way of restoring architecture with nature through architecture is simply the one of framing a view of the landscape,? Levy said. The unexpected approach is found in a 3,000 square foot home on Devonshire. It was designed by Levy and built by Don Romer along with interior design by Paul Draper and Mesa Design landscape architecture. Recently, the plans and amodel of House on a Pond were exhibited at the University of Texas at Dallas.

?The architecture somehow reaches out into the landscape in a way, in this case, connecting not only with the pond but with the sky, connecting with the rain,? Levy said. ? Just the architectural evidence that this building is connecting in this way seems to evoke this good feeling. Now, of course, if it?s raining, it?s even better.?

?When you arrive at the house, you have no idea that there is this beautiful quarry pond in the heart of that site,? Levy said. ?Because it is so lovely, we wanted the house to have a little bit more meaningful connection with the pond than simply to have a view of the pond. So what we did, essentially, was give the pond the house?s share of rain. The house is standing at a respectful distance. But it is connected to the pond by this waterway, which, in landscape terms, is called a runnel?a little canal. And one of the lovely things about this particular runnel is that since the site slopes down to that particular pond, there are, of course, little steps that give a cascade effect.?

Connecting the house to the sky and rain, of course, is the roof. All the rainwater that falls on the roof flows into several large custom designed rainspout gutters?steel and hot galvanized channels that are 12 in wide, 3 in deep, and covered with screened lids. These oversized rainspouts take on graceful proportion and scale to handle all the water.

?When you go up on the second level of the house and you look out any of the windows, the rain gutters are actually held one foot below the eaves, instead of snuggling right up to the underside of the eaves, as rain gutters normally do,? Levy said. ?You can actually watch the miniature falls coming off the roof into the gutters.? Then the down spouts are concentrated in just one place to deliver all the water to a breezeway called the rain terrace, which also serves as the entry terrace.

?Once you step into the entry terrace, you see the view of the pond for the first time?beautifully framed by the terrace,? Levy said. ?To connect you more profoundly with the view, you look up overhead and see these gutter elements coming into the sheltered terrace and the four large down spouts descend to a rain pool (6-ft diameter) right in the center of the terrace. When the pool reaches a certain level (it fills up with water), it then overflows into this runnel and cascades down the hill to the pond.?

?We actually brought this theme into the house,? Levy said. The entry door (6-ft wide, 8 ? ft tall French door) is on axis with the rain pool. ?When you are in the living room, dinning room, or kitchen, you look through the house and right out that door to the rain terrace at the pool and bundle of downspouts. So, whether it?s raining or not, you always are reminded of this connection with rain.?

?Another element heightens this effect,? Levy said. ?We used a pewter colored sheet metal for the roof. That same pewter colored metal covers the entire ceiling of the house. So, wherever you?re standing in the house, you have the sense that you?re standing under this big metal roof.? Interior walls of wood bleached to a weathered gray and a waxed concrete floor with limestone banding through it provide a sense of nature. And stainless steel screws in the ceiling add subtle hints of raindrops.

Other design features abstractly suggest some attributes in rain. For instance, fluidity?the changing shape of water?can be implied from the use of two enormous (12-ft wide and 9-ft tall) Shoji screens on two tracts spanning the 24-ft width of the room between the dining and living areas.

?You can?t imagine how elements this large can modify the feel of a space,? Levy said. ?By changing the position of these Shoji screens, you can totally divide a room, partially divide the room, create an intimate living room setting around the living room fireplace, or just pull them out eight feet or so to align them with the couches. Or you can push them all the way to the other side of the room. They kind of change the feel of the room.? Made from oak with rice paper panels, the screens are translucent (water is also translucent), and they add a bit of mystery to the enormous 42-ft space that forms the living area, dining, and kitchen. When pulled out of the room, the Shoji screens are stored inside a long, slender (2 ft by 12-ft) rectangular pocket, glass bay window. Looking at the screens from outside the front door might be compared, metaphorically, to looking into a pool of water.

Adding further flexibility to the interior space is a fabric screen (designed by Julie Cohn, owner of Two Women Boxing) that descends electronically from the kitchen ceiling. When pulled down, the screen separates the kitchen from the dining area.

The living/dining kitchen gains spaciousness from a large screened-in porch and the two-story ceiling above the living/dining, where a second story balcony leads to the master bedroom above the kitchen. The porch (32 ft long) is a mirror image of the living/dining/kitchen with its own outside fireplace, living room, and dining area. When its two sliding glass doors are opened, the entire ground floor feels like a garden pavilion.

?Architecture has this marvelous capacity to reframe our appreciation of common place things,? Levy said. ?This particular house, of course, focuses on the idea of rain. But, I think when a building does reframe our appreciation of any element, whether its rain or sunlight or flowers or breezes or sky, somehow it automatically awakens our sensibilities a bit.?

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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