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The Right Foundation Turned a Rugged Plot into an Environmental Friendly Home
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

Impossible?thought the five potential homeowners who bought and then sold the half-acre lot on the steep hill at the bend of the Royal Branch of the White Rock Creek. All those deed restrictions?an additional 20 foot setback imposed by the Dallas City Council on top the 100-year flood plane plus a 40-foot front yard setback allowed less than 1,200 square feet to build a minimum 3,500 square foot, one and one/half story, stone and/or brick construction that would require an 800 square foot side entry garage?impossible.

But Robert James, AIA President 1999-2000 and founding partner of James, Harwick+Partners, Inc. met with the City of Dallas Engineer the very day he and his wife Vicki closed on the site in November 1997, at which time James proposed an ?engineered solution? that would put the slab of the house on piers.

?It sits on piers, which are drilled into the ground down 15 feet and filled with concrete,? said James. And he turned to structural engineer, Dick Martter of Strand Systems for the slab construction, a process that included pre-swelling the clay soil by watering the ground surface before pouring the slab. Throughout construction, James relied on his brother-in-law, Keith Stewart, initially the heating and air conditioning contractor, and later, the project supervisor with assistance from David Roffino Construction. Over eleven months, the team meticulously erected a three-bedroom, 4,000 square-foot-house.

?For years, we wanted to have an urban existence, and yet be open to nature,? said James. ?We?ve been able to fulfill that dream here. To me, the house presents a very ordered appearance?clean lines. The circle drive is not a circle; it?s actually a series of rectangles?that?s the order. Then, you come into the house. There?s all the order of the columns, the geometric themes, the glass?that?s the geometric regularity. You might note that it slowly starts to disintegrate and gets rougher, looser as you approach the creek. The first thing you run into is the retaining wall, which is not the same stone. It?s a concrete retaining wall. And then we?re letting the yard go back to nature. And ultimately the creek is back to the purest form of nature.?

?Also, there?s a lot of ambiguity between what is indoors and what is outdoors because of the spatial quality of being able to capture the exterior space in the real enclosures?trees, bushes, that sort of thing,? James said. So, glass, lots of glass, wraps around the back of the house. On the front door and adjacent dining room windows is Bendheim Glass, chemically etched and opaque.

?We?ve always been people that keep the windows open; we don?t use shades very often,? said James. ?So, we have the benefit through nature here. It?s extremely difficult to see inside the house.? All window glass is insulated with Low-e on the third surface, which gives the glass a semi-reflective characteristic. ?You can still see in. But it?s very hard to distinguish what?s going on inside.?

Conversely, much of the interior lighting comes from nature. Somewhat like a skylight, sunlight penetrates into second story east and west windows and radiates down a draft located above the living room area in front of the fireplace. Originally, James attempted to work out not having a bedroom above the living room, which would then be two-stories tall. But he couldn?t do that and still meet the square foot deed requirements. So, he aligned the edges of the bedroom over the living room and created two pockets of double story space, one in front of the fireplace and the other near the stairs on the opposite side of the room.

?I wanted the house to be open as possible to the creek,? James said. ?And that meant we were going to lose energy. So, I knew I was going to be a high-energy consumer. And the logic to me was I needed to be able to produce heat or cold air inexpensively because if I used the standard system, it might be prohibitive in terms of the cost. We did use insulated glass. But, in comparison to a normal home, we still had relatively transparent walls relative to heat loss or heat gain. Then we super insulated everything else, filling all the space and making sure everything was caulked and tight.?

Yet, the biggest energy savings comes from using a Water-Furnace geo-thermal water source heat pump that Stewart installed. This vertical ground coupled heat pump required five 1,200 feet deep-water wells drilled below the driveway slab, where it works like a refrigeration unit; only it?s reversible providing heating or cooling to the space. And because ground temperature fluctuates moderately (between 60 and 80 degrees F year round) compared to air temperature, the system works more efficiently and less expensively than air-source heat pumps/air condition units.

Installation costs ran about three times as much as the standard system, according to James. Yet, he projected energy savings of 35% to 40% that would pay for the system in less than five years. ?So, I said if I live in the house five years, I?ve made a smart decision. If I don?t, somebody else gets the benefit of it.? Utility bills are running significantly less, and the house is almost all electric, except for gas cooking, a gas fireplace, and gas water heaters.

?And there is almost no sound,? adds Vicki, who marvels also at the insulation from outside noise.

The owners often entertain, sometimes up to 120 guests. In preparation, they cool the upstairs zone and open the interior windows to let air float down the drafts into the living room. Three temperature zones and four programmable thermostats allow them to regulate various areas in the home to accommodate their life as empty nesters with three grown children occasionally visiting.

?The house was arranged to have different levels of public access and privacy,? James said. ?The family room probably is the most public area cause it was an area we could tolerate people looking in. We tucked the master bedroom back in the corner. It?s the least public view into the backyard.? Tucked behind the master bedroom is the master bath with its own unique bathing plan, where the floor outside the tub serves as space for the shower. Interestingly, the shower walls are lined with seashell studded limestone and brick, the same surface that runs throughout the interior and along the front exterior.

?I found out the San Jacinto Monument was being resurfaced at the same time I was designing the house,? James said. ?We pretty much wanted it (house) to be part of Texas and the sort of cultural/historical aspects. So, I had the stone quarried from the same quarry they were doing the San Jacinto Monument at the time. It comes from Leander, Texas.? James designed the limestone and brick to create a pattern of horizontal planes that run continuous into the windows, and thus highlight the horizontal nature of limestone in the creek.

Fundamentally, this house speaks to an ecology that makes it friendly to the environment and Texan to its roots, just like its Texas owners.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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