It wasn’t what Norman Ward said when he was interviewed by Katherine Huynh; it was how the Fort Worth-based architect listened that garnered him the commission to design her home. Huynh had interviewed several architects known for contemporary residential work, and Ward was on her list.
“But he was the only one who listened to me,” says Huynh.
When she becomes excited, her words tumble over each other, and as she has an accent, she will talk faster and faster until her listener finally nods in understanding or surrender.
Ward was patient. He listened carefully.
Patience is one of his strengths. It has proved effective, as he has a five-year run of winning awards for his residential work, the most recent of which was from the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows, a significant honor that is bestowed for design excellence and civic responsibility on a national level.
“Listening is not a compromise,” Ward says. “It is translating what is expressed into something that is beautiful and inspiring. I listen, really listen, to bring clarity of a client’s thoughts into architecture.”
Huynh had a lot to say. She wanted a contemporary home designed to feng shui standards. She was not daunted that Ward was unfamiliar with the ancient Chinese philosophy of auspicious placement. She wanted to explain it, as many aspects are specific to the homeowner’s birth date and time.
“It took much more careful listening because feng shui was new to me,” Ward says. “We went through the process slowly.”
Even Huynh, who is from Vietnam, wasn’t completely clear on all the intricacies. “All Asian people believe in it, more or less,” Huynh says. “It’s a good thing, so you want it.”
Knowing you want it and schooling someone else required Huynh to solicit help from her family. She had to ask an aunt who lives in Los Angeles for an itemized list of the elements she should consider.
Equipped with directives that included such considerations as:
• The living room should be square or rectangular so the chi can circulate freely. Chi is positive energy.
• Ovens in the kitchen should face northeast, the best direction for a female cook. However, stovetops should not be opposite the sink as the water element negates the fire’s ability to burn bad elements.
• The bedroom doors should not face the bathroom door.
• Glass doors are not acceptable for front doors. Neither should the front door be opposite the back door, as the chi can blow through the house.
• The master bedroom should be located in the southwest, the area associated with relationships, especially love relationships.
• Guest bedrooms are located in the east, as this direction relates to family and extended family.
• The northern aspects of the house are dedicated to career and business matters.
Ward and Huynh began the design process. The result was a 2,800-square-foot house of such clarity and presence that it garnered an AIA Honor Award in 2015.
Building a house exclusively to feng shui guidelines might have resulted in an unsightly mess, but careful consideration of details important to Huynh did not impede Ward’s design sensibilities. He used the directional compass points and divided the public areas and bedrooms into units that are connected by what he calls “light boxes” that allow natural light to infuse the rooms rather than submit them to a direct blast of Texas sun.
From the street, the house appears to be three, single-story connected buildings that suggest a compound. The exterior surfaces of the units are different materials and colors, accentuating the tripartite design. The main structure that faces the street and houses the public areas is clad in Lueders limestone, the others in stucco — one painted cream, the other left the natural gray with a sealer. The three units are staggered and offset by 10 feet but are unified by a standing seam metal roof. A black cypress screen sets off the front door.
The simplicity of the exterior — the roof that meets the walls with only a slight overhang — is completely bereft of ornament or gutters.
Huynh’s home is in a gated area of Cedar Hill unencumbered by overly restrictive building covenants or homeowner rules, so the neighborhood is an eclectic mix of houses that have great variety to their design, size and building materials. The wooded properties are on land with undulating topography that provides a refreshing change from the typical big-city building sites, which are often flat and denuded of vegetation.
Huynh and her landscape company emphasized the simplicity of the house design with a front landscape that is equally unfussy. Decomposed granite and varying sizes of gravel with an occasional boulder are used instead of water-thirsty sod. Tufts of ornamental grasses are interspersed with a few magnolia and cedars, just enough for the effect of an oasis. The back of the property is left wooded with a rock yard that surrounds the area closest to the house.
Huynh’s only concession to gardening is a row of rosebushes that border an iron fence along her driveway. Her landscaping is as labor-free as possible, as Huynh does not want to have yard crews visiting her property. She wanted a house that was like a vacation home — not a high-maintenance property. She works long, irregular hours as a pharmacist, and when she is home, she wants solitude.
The interior promises just that. It is as spare and serene as an ashram. This is typical of Ward’s interiors; they are carefully crafted to bring in light without sacrificing privacy. The walls seem to float above the floors, as baseboards are recessed so no dust can gather; the walls meet the 14-foot ceiling in crisp straight lines without the need of moldings to hide imperfections. The interiors are as clean-lined as origami.
To achieve this simplicity requires expert craftsmanship, says Ward. “The attention to detail takes a skillful craftsman when you are doing contemporary work.”
The walls are painted white, the floors in the living area and dining room are scored concrete, and walnut is used for the floors in the bedrooms, porcelain tile in the bathrooms.
Ward uses his signature ankle-high window strips in the master bedroom and bathroom; these allow light to wash over the floors and provide privacy without the need for window coverings. They also allow an expanse of unpunctuated wall for displaying artwork.
In the northeast area of the house, Huynh wanted a home office and reading room. The office is secluded, while the reading area is elevated and projects from the house with three window walls that are surrounded by her backyard forest. It is a serene spot for reading or contemplation. It is elevated from the office below by seven risers with eight steps, another feng shui consideration; even numbers of steps are fortuitous.
Peter Waldman, professor of architecture at the University of Virginia, likens Ward’s design to Eero Saarinen’s classic 1957 Miller house. “Parts of this project recall another great American house paradigm, the Miller house and garden by Saarinen and Kiley, where the lessons of Court & Garden are interwoven into the immediate constructed landscapes as the intentional character of these new millennium projects where the promise of Eden is extensive and not qualified,” he writes in “Twelve,” a compilation of homes designed by faculty and alumni of the University of Texas at Arlington’s school of architecture.
In less-grandiose terms but equally as complimentary is a comment about Ward’s work by Emily Little, principal of Clayton & Little architects of Austin, who was on the 2015 jury for the AIA’s Honor Award: “For the simplicity of the detail, the absolute sublime use of materials and placement, it was a beautifully composed project.”
While there is noise in the architecture community swirling around Ward’s design, inside Huynh’s home all is blissfully quiet, which is just what she wanted.