Austin-based architect Scott Specht rethinks the sturdy and industrial “Brutalism” architecture for a luxury home in Dallas by integrating unexpectedly delicate details.
An architect’s job can be challenging when a client wants it both ways—a home design rooted in nature and privacy, yet fully dialed into a 21st Century lifestyle. Fortunately, Austin-based architect Scott Specht and his firm, Specht Architects, delivered just that for a busy family in Dallas with his “Preston Hollow” luxury home, the second Specht home to be featured by ICONIC LIFE—we are fans.
As the client approached him with both clear desires and an open mind, he ultimately tapped into the city’s embrace of the spare, industrial Mid-Century “Brutalism” architecture genre but tempered it with an unexpectedly polished and personalized spin.
“This house gets its (visual) power from it being more of an ‘Earth Art’ piece as opposed to an average house. The one-story structure is very long and low and embraces the shape of the original lot with its walls extending out and traveling across the landscape to look as if it is embedded into it,” Scott Specht explained. “When one drives along the road outside, he can look and see the sky right over the top of it.”
"It feels like it's in its own little world even if it is close to other houses in this architecturally diverse Dallas neighborhood.”
“We preserved a lot of the large trees on the site, so the structure feels like a part of the overall landscape as opposed to a house that’s just sitting there. Given the particular road that it’s on, which curves around, it’s sort of a loop, the home is not resting cheek to jowl with a Victorian house or Colonial-style mansion. It feels like it’s in its own little world even if it is close to other houses in this architecturally diverse Dallas neighborhood,” he said.
Scott Specht architects used noteworthy examples of Mid-Century architecture in Dallas as a starting point for the luxury Preston Hollow home. He cited Edward Durell Stone’s 1959 Oak Court house (featuring outdoor covered dining room surrounded by water) and Philip Johnson’s 1963 Beck Residence (with its tranquil, tree-filled inner courtyards) as prime examples of structures perfectly balancing stoic functionality with the delicate influences of natural light and the surrounding landscape.
The concrete construction of the 8,826-square-foot home is mellowed with delicate steel columns, thin window frames and hovering cantilevered roof edges. While some aspects of the design may suggest a Bauhaus sensibility to a casual observer, the Preston Hollow luxury home in Dallas actually represents the continued evolution of contemporary residential architecture, according to Scott Specht.
As Brutalism during its 1960s and 1970s prime was criticized for being too austere and forbidding outside of architect circles, Specht’s present-day interpretation counters some of the objections the public had about Brutalism. He affirms the Preston Hollow house is not totally in the Brutalism mold, as it integrates only the good aspects of it. For example, the design allows for a flow of light and air that some older examples do not.
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“It’s part of a continuum that started with the Modernism movement of the early 20th century. Bauhaus and Brutalism are among the many branches that flow off of it, and it’s definitely a part of modernism that’s still going on today,” Scott Specht said to provide historical context to this luxury home in Dallas. “Around the time I was in school, Brutalism was described as something that came about when some architects drew renderings of their buildings as if they were ruins in the future, their strong, heavy elements remaining intact through the ages.”
However, he feels that this approach of modern architects romanticizes the ruin in some respects and that Brutalism goes beyond that. “It was also about the architect forming space with the use of concrete as the generalized material to make it visually interesting,” he said.
And purposeful. Specht designs were also determined to ensure that Preston Hollow remained “green” in both its construction and the clients’ day-to-day uses. The roof shape and large cantilevered overhangs were carefully configured to provide complete shading from the harsh Dallas sun at all times of day. Windows, meanwhile, are higher up to provide extra privacy and energy efficiency for this Dallas luxury home.
Scott Specht’s addition of an impluvium, or opening in the center of the roof modeled after those found in traditional Roman houses, brings a water feature that serves as the form and function of the home. A stream, starting at the entrance and punctuated by a series of cascading terraces, flows through the site and to a pool. The collected water, in turn, irrigates the landscaping created by David Hocker.
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“We used modeling programs where we would figure in different roof forms and different types of overhangs that would not only balance things aesthetically but also satisfy the clients’ requirements of not allowing direct sunlight into the house any time of day,” Specht continued.
Additionally, he described that “giant cantilevered overhangs ensure the inhabitants are in complete shade during the entire day, and there will not be glare spots or spots inside the house that will heat up too much.” Solar grain control is one of the most sustainable and energy-saving aspects of this luxury home in Dallas. High-performance glass and insulation on sides of the house except for the west side added privacy as well as cooler interiors
Ultimately, what Specht accomplished is showing how Brutalism can be made relevant again by looking at original Brutalism buildings to differentiate what worked and what didn’t.
Ultimately, what Specht designs has accomplished is showing how Brutalism can be made relevant again by looking at original Brutalism buildings to differentiate what worked and what didn’t. From there, he can modify the good ideas to create something attractive and functional. He also feels it’s important that incorporating Brutalism influences was not part of the client’s original plan, but, rather, his desire to find a way to make the house and landscape merge as one.
“At one point, the walls were conceived to be made of stone. [From there], various materials were considered through different iterations of the design,” Scott Specht said. “But then, we hit upon the concrete for this Dallas luxury home, and it fit right in with the idea of [having a] palette of natural materials that the clients loved that did not need to be veneered or covered in some applied way. Other materials used for accents were selected in order to create a serene visual effect.”
Specht does not believe that Brutalism will return to what it was in the 1960s, specifically because labor costs are higher today. Still, he said, “We have a number of clients who want to use elements of it. Concrete really gives a sense of character to a house, and there’s something authentic about having a poured concrete wall that can be personalized in a similar fashion to the way a little industrial building can be fixed up for a unique business.”
For this reason, Scott Specht’s take on Brutalism works with many different kinds of décor, from French style antiques to an eclectic mix of period pieces. Preston Hollow’s owners opted for a wholly contemporary layout created by Los Angeles-based Magni Kalman Design that almost looks like a part of the architecture and is right in line with the house they wanted. However, peace of mind can be just as important as a peaceful setting, especially in Texas’ sometimes famously brutal weather.
“There was a recent tornado that came through the Dallas neighborhood, and it passed 4,000 feet from the luxury home,” Specht added. “While many houses in the neighborhood were damaged, the clients didn’t even know what was going on. This is another advantage of having concrete walls and an all-steel structure.
On better days, the design blurs the division between indoors and outdoors, as does form and function.”