November 26, 2014

Dangerous Curves: Randy Brown Gets Wild With A House Near Omaha

Architecture and design, we all know, are usually team endeavors. But not with a certain project in Douglas County, Nebraska. Randy Brown did it all: design, drawings, models, and construction management. “I was the only person from Randy Brown Architects to work on the house,” he notes. Because that’s how his clients wanted it. So what’s the story? Who exactly are the hipsters-in-residence at this dazzling structure, a gleaming, curving form that would be radical in Los Angeles never mind on the prairie.

It was Djel and Paul Brown, the architect’s 75-year-old parents, who pushed and prodded their son to come up with the whitest, most contemporary statement he could make. “Usually, it’s young architects who get this type of fantastic opportunity,” he points out. “I’m getting it at age 50.” The project was a decade in the making—starting when his parents bought the property, about a 15-minute drive from downtown Omaha. And the process was every bit as intriguing as the end result. “Dad always dreamed of building a house,” he says. “Almost every year, I’d do another design. Then, for whatever reason, it would get put on hold.” In other words, he spent a lot of time exploring options as well as educating his parents on architecture before they finally, definitively said yes.

He seized the moment and ran with it. The go-ahead came in August. By November, he was pouring the foundation—without having much of an idea of what would go on top. “All we had was basic massing,” he recalls. But he managed to beat the arrival of cold weather. Back at the drawing board, over the winter, he designed the exterior. When spring came, and the shell was going up, he turned his attention inside. The following year, the 3,000-square-foot interior was built out. Three years after the house’s fast-track inception, the certificate of occupancy was granted.

Let’s return to the backstory for a moment. Both parents made wish lists for their son. His father requested glass walls, high ceilings, and white surfaces. His mother cited intimate spaces and a marble floor. Practically impossible to achieve together, it might seem. In response, Brown conceived the house as two intersecting arcs, a form derived from the hilltop topography in addition to the two personalities. “I rolled out two clay tubes, one for each parent, then curved and overlapped them. You see the two forms delineated, outside and in,” he says. On the exterior, the arcs punch out at both ends like exclamation points, framing vertical window walls. Inside, the arcs create one large, double-height living area where they cross, at the center of the plan. Cozier spaces,  with lower ceilings, are to either side on the ground level: the entry, the kitchen, the dining room, and the master bedroom. Upstairs, the library and the guest suite are set up as separate, loftlike entities.

Having grown up nearby, Brown knew well the extremes of the Nebraska climate, and he situated the house accordingly. Along the south side, windows are switch glass not only for privacy but also for protection against the summer sun. To maximize solar gain during the rest of the year, orientation is east-west. The north face, mostly solid, is packed with insulation.

Radiant-heated flooring is predominantly marble—a key material in Brown’s minimal palette. “We went for the best-grade Carrara we could find,” he says. “For cost-efficiency, we used two different sizes of slabs and staggered the joints to create an abstract pattern.” Pure-white solid-surfacing forms the swooping kitchen island and vanity counters. White lacquer brings a gleam to cabinetry. Walls are, you guessed it, also white. Kitchen and bath fittings supply a flash of chrome, and all the window frames are tubular steel, which helps to support the upper level. “Only one structural column is exposed,” Brown says. “Everything else is hidden in the walls.”

This Spartan approach let him concentrate on details, particularly the pair of stairways. Through their clear glass balustrades, frosted-glass floating treads, lit by LEDs, are clearly visible. The LED fixtures are embedded in the walls, but you’d be hard-pressed to find light switches or electrical outlets on a wall elsewhere—they’re concealed in a cabinet or under the floor tiles, respectively. LEDs come into play again in the kitchen, inside a wide niche intended for sculpture display. One of the few pieces of furniture so far could be a sculpture by Donald Judd if he’d ever worked in clear, colorless glass. But the real sculpture is the house itself. “There isn’t a 90-degree angle in the place,” Brown states. It all adds up to a sense of mystery and even a dreamy softness. And his parents couldn’t be prouder.

Project Team: Infrastructure: Structural Engineer. Todd Gaver–Gaver Custom Homes: General Contractor.

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