A Light-Filled, Nature-Inspired House in Dallas

A chance encounter led a Dallas couple to a neighborhood where nature is prized as much as design, and houses are built to make the most of both.

Deborah Orrill and Blair Sanders weren’t thinking about moving out of the house they’d lived in for 30 years, let alone building a new one. But they did both with the help of Dallas architect Max Levy, surprising themselves with an impetuosity that flew in the face of the security of a nearly paid-off mortgage. "It was an accident," admits Orrill, a former director of Dallas’s Central Market Cooking School. 

Big windows need massive supports that are hard to disguise. To get unobstructed views, Levy did away with the beams, opting instead to use laminated veneer lumber studs to hold the windows in place. The Poltrona Frau sofas date from the 1980s, and the cane-chrome armchairs are from Gebrüder Thonet Vienna.

How did two usually methodical people upend their well-laid plans and end up in a brand-new, stucco-galvanized, metal-and-glass house? Luck, or perhaps fate: Orrill noticed a sign on a road near their house in the Dallas suburbs announcing Urban Reserve, a neighborhood of modern, single-family, architect-designed homes. "I was intrigued," she says—and she liked what she saw. The city’s first low-impact development offered a synthesis of modern design, sustainable architecture, and respect for the environment. 

Architect Max Levy designed a home in Dallas for Deborah Orrill and Blair Sanders using small but mighty design details, like a "martini deck" tucked atop the cylindrical entry, which is clad in raw, galvanized sheet metal.

Built-in bookshelves in the living room hold Sanders’s vinyl collection.

After a trip to the 13-acre site, on the east bank of White Rock Creek, Orrill and Sanders discussed the possibilities. "We knew we didn’t want a bigger house, but a better house," says Sanders, a former director of cloud technology for Xerox. "Our [previous] house was a tract home built around a courtyard," he explains. "It looked in on itself. We wanted a house that was open to nature." It didn’t take long for the couple to make a decision. They bought a lot, interviewed four architects recommended by the developer, and put their house on the market.

Orrill, a culinary professional, used Ikea’s kitchen planning software to plot out cabinetry and appliance placement. Levy split the 30-foot-long space into a private back kitchen, with an oven and staging area, and a public cooking station with a white laminate countertop—a maneuver that means guests in the adjacent dining area never see the messy stuff.

One of the short-listed architects was Max Levy. "We’d heard so many wonderful things about Max that we were almost afraid to talk to him," says Orrill. Levy grew up in Texas and has a small, hands-on practice; he’s known for a poetic treatment of modernism, connecting houses with nature in imaginative, cost-effective ways. "Deborah and Blair had modest needs," Levy says. "The spark of their program was to connect with nature—they didn’t want features on steroids."

Jason David Smith, a young architect working for Levy at the time, made birdhouses for local screech owls and purple martins.

Playing off of his design brief to construct a home where his clients could enjoy space and light, Levy’s next consideration was the lot’s prominent location in the Urban Reserve neighborhood. The triangle-shaped lot is located at the entrance to a cul-de-sac and possesses a lone chinquapin oak, a species that usually grows in clusters. Despite the narrow lot, the tree took precedence: "I thought that we could have a house that surrounded the tree," says Orrill.

The play of shadows on the iconic shape, as well as on the shapes of the house numbers, is a Levy trademark.

Levy got crafty with the lot’s scalene dimensions, breaking what was to be a 2,500-square-foot house into two 16-foot-wide rectangles. A 50-foot-long rectangle houses the garage with two bedrooms and baths over it; the main living area measures 60 feet in length. A corner of that single-story building is nudged underneath the eaves of the two-story bedroom wing at a 100-degree angle that makes it look like it’s been kicked forward. The oak takes center stage in the resulting V. The cherry on top is Levy’s addition of a two-story metal-clad cylinder at the front of the main building that functions as the home’s entryway: It neatly fits into the triangle’s apex, "like a punctuation mark," he says.

Orrill wanted the kitchen to be command central for entertaining, so everything is kept inside minimalist cabinetry—except for the copper pots and pans hanging on the back wall, painted in Pale Water by ICI Dulux Paint. The refrigerator is by Jenn-Air and the faucet is American Standard.

After designing the bones of the Orrill-Sanders house, Levy began to wonder about one living zone in particular. "Deborah Orrill is a nationally known culinary expert," the architect says. "I kept waiting for her to mention the kitchen." Orrill didn’t say a thing, but she had her reasons: "I went to cooking school in France," she says, "and they teach you how to do everything manually. It cured me of needing showy industrial appliances and every little gadget." Since Orrill wanted to keep things simple, Levy accommodated with a galley kitchen. 

Vanguard Way Floor Plan:

A Entrance

B Living Room

C Kitchen-Dining Area

D Half Bathroom

E Utility Room

F Garage

G Bedroom

H Bathroom

I Master Bedroom

J Deck

He split the 30-foot-long kitchen into two parts: a public cooking area in front and a back kitchen, tucked behind a wall at the far end of the counter, that houses cabinets, an oven, and room to stage meals. The open section is separated from the living room at the other end by a gray-green wall, where Orrill hangs copper pots and pans. "It’s my tribute to Julia Child," she says, referring to Child’s uber-practical Peg-Board system, which she used to hang utensils in plain sight. This room is command central for entertaining: There’s a cooktop, a long white laminate countertop, and no visible cabinets. Nothing signals "messy kitchen" to guests seated at the dining table, on the banquette, or in the adjacent living room. The floor-to-ceiling windows help give "a very grand effect to a modest house," says Levy.

"One of the things Max insisted on," Sanders says, "was that we have views of our own house. That’s why all the sides of the house are different." Some are stucco, others are metal-clad, and ipe latticework encloses one end of the garage.

Levy had called in a local architect, Sharon Odum, for help with fabrics, furniture, and colors. Levy and Odum suggested painting the ceilings dark gray, another small design decision with impact. The residents feared the moody hue would overwhelm the all-white walls and white oak floors but are happy with the result; painting the four-and-a-half-foot-wide soffits and 11-foot-tall ceiling the same shade of gray extends the visual perception of space. "It’s the color of a thunderstorm," adds Levy, "and, in the Texas heat, that’s a good thing." 

Color plays a subtle role throughout the mostly white interior. Odum responded to Orrill’s request for a "serene" house by matching the gray-green for the living room-kitchen wall to tonal nuances in the copper pots and pans. A peachy shade in the back kitchen references a dhurrie rug nearby. Upstairs, in the bedroom wing, Odum chose a paler blue for the ceilings—"partly as a nod to the shade you often see on porch ceilings in old Texas houses," she says.

Their new home has lived up to, if not surpassed, the original intent. Orrill and Sanders have been entranced by the spectacular sunrises and sunsets they’ve tracked, as well as the paths of the moon. "We are wide open to the east, where we see the moon rising," says Orrill. "And in the morning we see it setting." They also enjoy the shadows on the walls, the clatter of rain on the galvanized metal roof, and acorns pinging the roof when they fall from the big oak. "It’s been amazing," says Sanders. "We are more aware of nature than we’ve ever been. It’s hard to believe we are in the middle of a big city." 


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