Interview with an Architect: Robert Raymond Advocates Appropriate, Sustainable Design

Robert Raymond

Photo: Michael Palumbo

In our ongoing series, Interview with an Architect, we speak with leading voices in the North Texas architecture community and learn about their work, development issues in our community, and good design practices and principals (you can read the last one here).

Robert Raymond

Robert Raymond

Robert W. Raymond, AIA, moved to Dallas in 1981 after completing his Masters in Architecture at the University of Michigan. He has never lived more than a few blocks from White Rock Lake in East Dallas, where he built his family’s home and made the transition to residential architecture in 2000.

“The house turned out great and my wife and daughters are still speaking to me,” he said.

With his firm, Raymond Design, he has built houses in neighborhoods ranging from Preston Hollow and the Peninsula, to Richardson and Southlake.

He was named Young Architect of the Year in 1989 by the Dallas chapter of the American Institute of Architecture, served on the board of trustees of the Dallas Architectural Foundation from 2004 to 2006, and has served on the board of trustees of the White Rock Lake Conservancy from 2008 to present.

CandysDirt: You spent 20 years working on big buildings, like hotels and hospitals, moving into residential design in 2000 by designing and building your family house. What appeals to you about residential architecture?

Rob Raymond: There are two main reasons. First, the ability to work from beginning to end on a project, from the initial concept to final construction.

Second, and most rewarding, is working so closely with the client on projects that are near and dear to them. With corporate clients building hotels or hospitals, it’s a business transaction and commercial architecture, in a big firm, is more specialized and compartmentalized. You rarely get the chance to go from inception of idea to ribbon cutting.

With residential architecture, I’m usually working with couples and I joke that it’s part residential architecture and part marriage counseling. It’s fun to get to know people, understand them, and connect with them.

Robert Raymond

The house Raymond designed in East Dallas on Belmont Avenue is a LEED-Platinum home. Photo: Michael Palumbo

Robert Raymond

The kitchen of the Belmont House. Photo: Michael Palumbo

Robert Raymond

A bathroom at the Belmont House. Photo: Michael Palumbo

CD: How do you help clients discern what it is exactly they want?

RR: The website Houzz is an excellent tool. Most folks, by the time they’re ready to hire an architect, have built a Houzz ideabook and the beginning point of design is much further along than it used to be. Houzz has several million pictures, so we can accelerate the image communication. The key is making sense of any conflicting images—what aspect of this image appeals to the person? Folks don’t always use the right language or use the right terms. Is it the big windows or the way the light comes in? I work with them to synthesize the aspects of each image they like into a composite design.

CD: One of your design mantras is “appropriate design” instead of trendy design. How can people get a timeless look when so much of the marketplace is directed toward trends?

RR: They have to be brave and confident to feel comfortable that what they are choosing is right for them. Some of that falls back onto me to communicate the sort of essence of contemporary architecture to them. First, design the building to be appropriate for the site. Apply basic concepts of light, proportion, scale, and appropriate materials for both exterior and interior. Use simple forms and chances are pretty good you will end up with timeless, not trendy.

From my time in commercial world, I learned to keep the building and room volumes fairly simple. I typically use deeper structural members to clear-span the interior spaces so there are no load-bearing interior walls. Thus, any future renovations have a lot more flexibility. In this way, I design flexibility into the basic structure and help it stay appropriate, no matter the era or trend.

Robert Raymond

The East Dallas residence of the Raymond family, designed by the architect himself. Photo: Craig Blackmon, FAIA

The main stairwell at the Raymond house. Photo: Craig Blackmon, FAIA

The living room of the Raymond house. Photo: Craig Blackmon, FAIA

CD: You have a keen interest in the environment and pursuing sustainable design principles as fully as possible in all types of projects. Tell us about how that shows up in your work.

RR: That goes way back to when I was in high school and we had the 1973 OAPEC oil embargo and there were lines outside the gas stations two miles long. I’m also a fly fisherman and my family hikes and spends a lot of time outside. I’ve read every book I can about the history of water development and oil and gas development, and lots of books about natural systems such as prairies, rivers, wetlands, and so on.

This naturally led to an interest in our renewable resources. We waste so much energy and water. I’m not anti-development, but we have got to be more intentional and forward-thinking in our decisions to consume resources.

The Belmont house I built was a spec house and it is LEED platinum certified. I was developer and architect on that because I wasn’t seeing enough builders in the Dallas doing true green/high-performance homes at market-rate prices. That house cost just $100 a square foot.

We were committed to making Belmont a healthy house—we used paint with no VOCs, glues with no formaldehyde, and met the EPA IndoorAirPLUS certification. We planted plants that are drought resistant, true native plants.

Sustainable design practices can be almost be invisible and can transcend any style. A huge portion of the sustainability effort can be achieved for no cost, by being smart about the basic design concept. Orient the house properly, make sure big windows aren’t south-facing, have roof overhangs, and you are well on your way. A big part is also “tightness of the envelope” to avoid air and humidity infiltration. We seal exterior studs around windows, spray foam insulation in hard-to-reach areas, and make sure there can be no transmission of fumes and heat from garages to occupied spaces.

Robert Raymond

Photo: Michael Palumbo

The entry of the Raymond house. Photo: Craig Blackmon, FAIA

Robert Raymond

Photo: Michael Palumbo

CD: One of your mottos is, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” How does that play out in residential architecture?

RR: This motto is paired up with the concept that there’s always a better solution out there. From a cultural standpoint, we’re bombarded by images constantly and in the design process, this can create “the recency effect.” It means every time some clients run across a new image, it becomes the thing they need to have, and they want to add it to the project.

It takes a lot of time to design and build a house and people don’t realize how many decisions they’re going to make, from exterior materials to light fixtures to toilets to water heaters. These add up to thousands of decisions. This thing that we’re focusing on now is important, but we’ve got many, many more things after that. You got to have some level of trust in your architect and builder, but also in yourself, that yes, you made that decision for a good reason.

CD: The White Rock Lake Conservancy is important to you. What work does the group do?

RR: We were formed in October 2007 because the Dallas Parks Department has been under increasing budget constraints and they reached out to a group in the lake community to help preserve and enhance White Rock Lake. There are a lot of good examples across the country of public-private partnerships, like the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy in New York City. A lot of people don’t know that Central Park gets almost all of its budget from private funds and the Conservancy manages the park itself. We were trying model ourselves after that.

The city of Dallas created a top-ten list of projects that need implementation, including trail upgrades, restoration of the stone tables, reconstruction of the fishing piers, and rebuilding the Dreyfuss Club, which burned down in 2006. Our goal is to help implement these projects.

One of my areas of serious interest outside architecture and in the community is the Dallas educational system and mentoring at-risk youth. My wife and I have been involved in supporting education reform in Dallas through Commit!, DallasKidsFirst, and Uplift Education, the main charter entity that runs a bunch of schools in DFW.  We’ve also been volunteering with Big Brothers/Big Sisters for about six years now, both as “bigs” and as donors to BBBS of North Texas. BBBS has adjusted to offer a variety of volunteer models to suit the time constraints of potential “bigs.” There are lots of kids on the waiting lists.

My “little brother” is graduating from high school this year and that is a huge milestone—we were matched when he was in sixth grade and it has been a fantastic and meaningful experience. I bring this up for two reasons: one of the other architects you interviewed mentioned that Dallas is becoming a better city all the time, but he mentioned that the public education system has to be a part of the improvement, along with the physical improvements, and he is exactly right: human capital is as important as financial and physical capital.

CD: What’s your favorite building in Dallas, residential or commercial, and why?

RR: My favorite commercial building is the Dallas City Performance Hall across from Booker T. in the Arts District. We go to a lot of concerts there and I am always fascinated by the design. It takes a basic, and somewhat cold material–concrete–and combines it with the warm wood to create an incredible environment. The authenticity of the materials, and the overall visual texture of the wood, black steel handrailings, and black aluminum curtain wall makes for a great composition. And I like the fact that it is not fussy. I love the Winspear too, but it is definitely a fussy, tightly detailed building and maybe not as “honest” as the Dallas City Performance Hall.

My favorite residential work in Dallas is anything by Cliff Welch. Every house of his, I love. You can tell they come from a family of ideas, but they’re all very different. Cliff is a friend and I often mention how inspiring his work is to me. Even though he is younger than I am, I consider him a mentor.