Project Cheatham Residence, Dallas
Client Diane and Chuck Cheatham
Architect Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners
Design Team Tod Williams, FAIA; Billie Tsien, FAIA; James Chavel
Photographer Craig Blackmon, FAIA

From outside, at certain angles, the Cheatham Residence is screened from view by vegetation. Visitors catch just an enticing glimpse of the exterior screen, where it rises above the treetops. Below the leafy boughs, the CMU-clad superstructure appears, a solid base for the floating mass of the house. On the sidewalk, joggers and families skirt the occasional curious architecture fan.

This residence and its relationship to the surroundings epitomizes the development Diane Cheatham envisioned when she established the Urban Reserve — a neighborhood of 50 sustainably designed, contemporary homes located on a sliver of land between the commercial thoroughfares Forest and Royal lanes in North Dallas. The DART train line runs along the west side of the community, separating it from Cottonwood and White Rock Creeks. Beyond is a typical expanse of mid-century suburban sprawl. In such a setting, creating a “reserve” is no small feat.

Having completed a number of projects in Oak Lawn and other Dallas neighborhoods, Cheatham turned to creating a community steeped in modern design. “In the Urban Reserve, every house does not have to be an award-winning design,” she says. “Modern housing in the 20th century established many things that benefited our community and way of life. The development sought to connect people based on the things they love.”

Each of the 50 lots in the development has two edges: an “urban” edge and a “natural” edge. In 2006, Cheatham worked with Robert Meckfessel, FAIA, of DSGN and landscape architect Kevin Sloan to create a series of design standards and site requirements to ensure that any home built at Urban Reserve adheres to the values of the community.

The Cheatham Residence, set at One Vanguard Way near the entrance to the neighborhood, expresses the community’s vision on a personal level — Diane designed and built it for herself, and she lives there with her husband, Chuck. When it came time to find an architect that would match their direction and passion for the development, Diane and Chuck were drawn to Tod Williams, FAIA, and Billie Tsien, FAIA. They met at a lecture that Tsien had given in Dallas, and discovered a deep, mutual respect for design. “The Urban Reserve is a very well-rounded development with a strong sense of social responsibility,” Williams says. “Out of the requirements, the development became very meaningful for the city.” Tsien says: “Diane developed the Urban Reserve out of a clear love for the community.”

Since 2008, Chuck and Diane have inhabited the result of this productive collaboration. Their satisfaction and pride are evident. “I like the main part of the home,” comments Chuck, referring to the massive, third-floor living space. “It is a pleasant space to be in, with the quality of light through the trees.” The main portion of the home soars above the second floor — which is mostly outdoor space — and the ground floor, with its guest quarters. It has been compared to a (very luxurious, extra-special) treehouse. “The house had no real views to speak of,” Williams says. “Therefore, we opened the home to views of the canopy of trees.”

The organization and articulation of the house create a clear link between the urban and natural edges of the site, and this relationship is expressed in the building section. The first level, clad in sandblasted concrete block, anchors the architecture visually to the ground. This base contains (among other things) two guest rooms, the garage, and the stair and elevator that lead to the upper floors. Each guest space has its own sitting area, bathroom — and access to and from the house without passing through the hosts’ quarters. Framed views of the wooded ravine complement the cast-in-place concrete finish. A central koi pond and Japanese garden punctuate the silence and the solitude.

A second-level terrace, shaded all around by an overhanging main floor, focuses on the connection with the outside. This is where “urban” meets “natural” in the most literal way. There is an office space on this level, but its main function is to entertain guests and experience the landscape. A pool, jutting westward, captures the sunset on the horizon with the tree canopy below, and affords a passive cooling method for the dining area, which is tucked underneath the volume of the third level.

An expansive metal screen wraps the south and east sides of the house. This armature links the overall composition visually with the scale of the neighborhood and shades the home and the eastern exterior stair. Williams and Tsien likened the interior program to a private city condo — only in the woods, and with enough space to accommodate the couple’s way of life. Diane’s love of cooking and her conviviality influenced the placement of the kitchen at the heart of the third level. Living and dining rooms that are open in plan with views of the trees on all sides flow to the north. Diane’s office and library, the master bedroom, and supporting private spaces are located to the south, with ample shading from the screen and framed views of the rest of the Urban Reserve development. The entire floor is linked by a circulation spine that runs along the eastern edge of the house, where the couple’s art collection is on display.

The Cheatham Residence is the tallest of the Urban Reserve houses, yet it does not shout about its position in the community. Rather, the architecture is understated and in balance with the surroundings. Williams and Tsien’s tectonic treatment — an essential aspect of their work — makes this possible. The form is a play of response and definition, seen in moments like the subtle balcony that extends from the Cheathams’ private space on the upper floor, or the articulation of the facade within the treehouse volume, which addresses the sun and the need for privacy. As is required of all homes in the Urban Reserve, the materials are sustainable and were sourced regionally. “We were always in dialogue with Diane about what materials could be available locally,” Williams says.

As the build-out of the Urban Reserve approaches completion, each of the 50 homes has a story to tell. At One Vanguard Way, the relationship between architect and owner proved to be the most important aspect of the design. The give-and-take dialogue required constant collaboration and just as much input from the owner as from the architect. Project architect James Chavel recalls Cheatham as someone who “was amazing at making decisions about the selection of things.” He says, “Diane’s input was a big part of the design process.” Williams further explains: “It was great that Diane had a passion for the house. We came to expect something very similar out of the project.” Diane is currently embarking on another Urban Reserve development, which will no doubt yield more collaborative architectural projects and another fine piece of Dallas’ built environment.

Michael Friebele, Assoc. AIA, is a project designer at Perkins+Will in Dallas.

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