David Heymann

Crawford, Texas

A Client for All Seasons: Laura Bush took a lead role in the design of the new presidential library, as she did once before with the family ranch house.

With the George W. Bush Presidential Center by Robert A.M. Stern Architects opening in Dallas this month, it is worth taking a look at another architectural commission from “W.” The rarely seen ranch house in Crawford, Texas, was designed by David Heymann of Austin in 1999. A vacation house, of course, is very different in scope and intent from a presidential library. But the two architects involved in each project agree that the principal client for both the house and the library was the former first lady, Laura Bush, who encouraged them to design to the highest environmental standards. She assumed her role as an architecture client easily: Laura Welch Bush had grown up in Midland, Texas, the daughter of a home builder. “I was surrounded by construction projects,” she says, “and architectural plans were lying around our house all the time.” Her father often moved the family into the latest house he had built, giving the client-in-waiting much exposure to residential architecture.

The house at Prairie Chapel Ranch, the Bushes' 1,580-acre tract of land in Crawford (population 712), was dubbed the “Western White House” during Bush's two terms. About 100 miles northeast of Austin, the modest, well-engineered, modern dwelling sits comfortably in the Texas terrain. Despite the anemic environmental regulations that characterized the Bush presidency, back home the Bushes are patient stewards of their land, living in a house that is environmentally sustainable.

In 1998 a friend of the couple, Deedie Rose, a Dallas arts and architecture patron (her own house was designed by Antoine Predock), heard Heymann give a lecture at the University of Texas at Austin. Heymann, then associate dean of the undergraduate programs at UT's School of Architecture, talked about his environmental strategies. “Deedie later told me, 'I have your architect,' ” says Laura Bush.

The Crawford residential complex comprises three separate structures totaling less than 4,000 square feet for the interior spaces. Heymann sited the main house, a narrow rectangle broken into an arc, on a slight crest with views to the north and a grove of live oaks to the west. He then placed a two-bedroom guest cottage and a garage southwest of the main house. The wood stud-framed house is clad in Lueders roughback limestone, quarried locally. “People usually wanted smoothly hewn limestone then,” says Heymann, “so the roughback was considered waste. But the Bushes liked the idea of using a leftover material for the house.” The limestone's insulative characteristics keep the house cool in summer and warm in winter, helped by its thickness: walls may be 16 inches deep to accommodate pocket screens for the steel-framed windows and doors.

Within the main house, 40-foot-wide, gang-nail trusses, spaced 2 feet apart, allow column-free living areas with deep porch overhangs (typically 10 feet) on all sides. “President Bush asked if there could be accessibility to the outdoors from every room,” says Heymann. “We went farther. To get from one room to another you go outside and then back in, sheltered by the deep porch.” For strong prairie rains, a gutter wraps around the house at grade, collecting water through rocks and a mesh filter and depositing it in a 42,000-gallon underground cistern. The water is used to irrigate the plants around the house, along with treated gray- and blackwater from the sinks, showers, and toilets. A geothermal system heats and cools the dwelling. “The house is a true mediator between those who live there and the landscape,” says Heymann. Although the Bushes now have a home in Dallas too, the Crawford ranch offers them a calm refuge, albeit with an ever-present Secret Service detail.

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