• The designed landscape comes right up to Bluestem and flows through its open breezeway before fading into the natural surroundings. Photo by Charles Smith, AIA.

Project Bluestem
Client Norman Ward, AIA
Architect Norman D. Ward Architect
Design Team Norman Ward, AIA
Photographers Charles Smith, AIA; Ralph Lauer

In 2004, Norman Ward, AIA, received an unexpected phone call. A client was planning to develop a small portion of their ranch in Cresson, a one-stoplight town 30 minutes southwest of Fort Worth. The client and his father owned the ranch together, and they called to tell Norman that they wanted him to have a home there. They asked him to pick out the site himself.

Ward knew immediately which lot he wanted. Years before, he had explored the land with the client. At the edge of the ranch, a spring-fed creek has carved a cliff from a hill that overlooks the surroundings. As soon as he understood what they were offering, Ward says, “I knew exactly the place I wanted to build my house: this hilltop.”

Ward was drawn to the breezes and openness of the hill, and he sought to preserve this experience in the house. The design was conceived as four distinct pavilions under a common roof. Three of the four pavilions are separated by two breezeways. These separations in the volume allow breezes as well as the land to flow through the house. The east/west separation creates a circulation path through the main house, connecting the living/kitchen volume with the bedroom unit.

The design is elegantly conceived in a way that embodies the utilitarian impulses of rural Texas. The construction components are simple and uncovered. Structurally insulated panels form the roof, ceiling, and soffits, resting on Glu-Lam beams that run the length of the structure. Gray CMU, stucco, and steel windows complete the exterior palette. Openings in the volumes reveal the thickness of the block, stucco, and partition walls.

It was several years before Ward was ready to start construction. He spent a lot of time on the site to develop a greater understanding of the land, an understanding that is evident in his design. “The house is connected to the land, and I discovered colors for the exterior in the landscape,” Ward says. “This opened my eyes to how context can influence these decisions.” The site gently cascades down a hillside of limestone shale and soils that have eroded over time. The topography prevented any previous cultivation and has left an authentic, raw landscape in various shades. Scattered juniper, live oaks, cacti, and native grasses survive in a rough mixture of shallow soil and rock. Ward references the lichen-covered stones as a distillation of the project’s character. The rock is gray on the exterior and dotted with a layered array of gray, white, ochre, and rust-colored splotches. If you break the weathered limestone apart, you get a fresh, uniform cream color on the inside. “These colors led to the material palette for my house,” Ward says. “Gray CMU, cream stucco, and weathered steel.” 

The native landscape is not held away from the house at a predetermined distance. Instead, a raised walkway under the canopies connects the terrain north to south, through the breezeway. This continuity allows the landscape to flow through the building while remaining part of the hill. Ward collaborated with Redenta’s on the development and maintenance of the landscaping, in an ongoing exploration of how plants surround the house, interact, and fade into the rest of the landscape as it cascades down the hillside.   

Many of Ward’s projects are characterized as carving out spaces that usher natural light into the interior. This is an idea that became a core tenet of his work after he lived in the house. The two breezeways became canvases for daylight. Throughout the day, across the seasons, and varying with the weather, the atmosphere of the interior is transformed by the colors and intensity of these light chambers. Each breezeway has an opening in the center of the roof that is fixed with a perforated steel panel. This oculus amplifies the phases of the day and the moods of the sky. “The sunlight is in constant motion within these breezeways,” Ward says. “In the morning, the sunlight falls on the walls facing to the east; by midday, the sunlight moves across the ground; and by the afternoon, the sunlight is moving up the walls facing west.”

Ward had many conversations with the tradesmen and builder about his design goals and the quality of construction. An electrician insisted on wiring a doorbell for the house. Ward says, “I told him not to install any wiring for a doorbell. I told him that someday I would find another solution. I did not want a bell to ring inside this house.” About two years later, Ward contacted an instrument developer in Maine and commissioned a musical instrument made of four aluminum tubes that you strike with a mallet. This is his doorbell.

Bart Shaw, AIA, is an architect in Fort Worth.

Leave a Comment