Thursday, March 08, 2007

The President and his Land: Lessons from the Architect of the "Western White House" in Crawford

As stories of Al Gore's profligate energy use for his mansion in Nashville have circulated, some bloggers have made mention of the environmentally friendly design of the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas. The former Vice President's practice of offsetting his energy consumption with carbon credits brings to light one way which one proposed way of leading a "green" lifestyle. Paying for the right to emit greenhouse gas in exchange for promises to absorb these gases elsewhere seems much easier than having to change one's lifestyle by rationing energy use and integrating natural processes in our daily lives. Carbon trading seems to me more a matter of abstract bean-counting rather than living a life in greater direct harmony with our natural surroundings that defines the ecological lifestyle.

From my perspective, the greatest benefit in employing green design is the opportunity it avails in strengthening the bond a dweller has with the spiritual qualities of the site. There's a bit of a transcendentalist influence to this idea, but I find that those who demonstrate a true appreciation for nature are those who actually own property on which that nature is found. As property, the natural assets within it has a real, not just transcendent value. The fact that Bush's ranch house features "green" design has less to do in conserving marketable resources on his property than with a desire to demonstrate a genuine love for his site.

How do I know this? I was a student of the architect that designed Bush's "Western White House". David Heymann, as talented a professor as he is a designer, shared numerous stories to his students about the experience for working for "the governor" at the time. Bush's ranch house was planned at the beginning of his second term as governor of Texas. Before that commission, Heymann was engaged more as an academic than a practicioner, having designed a handful of small projects in the midwest and Austin. By serendipity and extremely loose connections with the Bush family, he was entrusted by them to realize their permanent retreat in Central Texas.

Heymann was responsible for teaching site design at the school, and pushed students to ask thoughtful questions about the meaning of landscape, context, and a building's relation nature in the technical and spiritual sense. As the ranch was being framed in Crawford, Heymann would show pictures of its construction and providing details on the systems and materials being used. Although he confessed that his politics were on opposite spectrum of the governor's, he revealed that he has never had a better working relationship with a client than George and Laura. The future first lady made sure that the architect's needs were attended to, even calling him to see if he had arrived safely back from his site visit.

Part of why Heymann enjoyed working for the Bushes was their willingness to listen. As a self-described environmentalist, Heymann was determined to intergrate sustainable design into the new ranch. George W. Bush heard his argument in a one-on-one meeting, letting Heymann make his case. From my recollection, the architect presented the contention that if you love the land that you inhabit that the governor surely did (and continues to return to often during his presidency) you will do what is necessary to preserve its essence, and implement a design that does not intrude upon the landscape. The resulting single-story home is rather small from what it could have been at only 4000 square feet, with heating and cooling partially provided by geothermal technology, rainwater is collected and stored for irrigation. It also resulted in a funny story that involved Laura accompanying the architect at a store searching for water-efficient toilet fixtures.

Construction photos revealed a shallow plan oriented along the path of the sun. A deep roof overhang shades the south-facing facade as well functioning as covered porch that runs around the entire perimeter of the house. The width of the house is limited to single room which uses the perimeter porch as an important means of circulation along the house's length. The porch thus serves as a breezeway, a space that mediates the transition between inside and outside. This transition between the sheltered spaces and the surrounding landscape is made more seamless by the maintaining of grade level throughout. The house does not sit on a raised podium, but anchors itself firmly within the lay of the land. A gravel-filled moat surrounding the porch floor collects water runoff while delineating a sensitive threshold between the house and nature. Copious floor-to-ceiling windows provide each room with distinct views, further tying the indoors with the outside. In an effort to tie the house to the surrounding region as a whole, the house is clad in left-over limestone from local quarries, which exhibit a rich variety of colors often eliminated when processed as a clean, cream-colored masonry. The metal roof, while contributing to a higher albedo (refection of light back to the sky), it evokes the use of sheet metal in barn buildings and sheds in Texas.

Heymann notes that there is a current trend which involves the movement of people who are moving out of the cities to rural sites in order to recapture a sense of calm and the replenishing energy from nature. Like the Bush family's Crawford residence, he sees it as imperative that sensitive site design and an architecture that derives some of its energy and materials on site will reveal nature's regenerative power. Although my former teacher, like half of all architects these days, would call himself "green", his rationale in applying green strategies is for me the most compelling. He may believe that a more systematic and universal application of green methods may make a noticeable difference against global warming, but he also understands that there is more emotional and aesthetic case for green design that can persuade all people regardless of their political disposition. I'll admit that he was one of my school's best teachers, commanding strong rhetorical skills often lacking among architects. Having David Heymann critique your studio project was a mixed blessing, in that he would have a lot to say about your project and would not hesitate to point out the weaknesses or your design at length. But contrary to many reviewers who'd rather fumble with pablum, everything he said was well-reasoned and insightful, peppered with humor and an awkward passion. He ended up posing difficult questions about assumptions we students would take for granted which demonstrated a convincing grasp on the latest architectural theories. I wouldn't be surprised if Heymann's personality as a dedicated teacher rubbed off on the then-governor.

Heymann grew to like the future first family, and may have actually attended Bush's first presidential inauguration. Although he shared little with the president politically, he would not refuse the opportunity of getting to know a man that reached out to his architectural creed. The lesson here is that the relationship between a client and an architect is about more than partisan affiliation. It entails fulfilling an emotional need of the client to his land and allowing the architect to achieve a solution respectful to the site's uniqueness.

This goal is close to what I think architecture should be: creating beautiful spaces that function for the client on various levels, both technically and emotionally. It's a far less defined goal than calculating points for LEED certification or specifying a building's carbon footprint, but it is fundamental towards producing timeless design that moves us in inexplicable ways.

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