Conversations With Builder Paul Lamb and Architect Don Crowell Is This My Beautiful House?

by Anne S. Lewis So you're thinking about buying a house; it's summer and the house-trading season is certainly upon us. But even if you've done it before, be prepared for a wild ride: In Austin, real estate, like politics, is a contact sport. To begin with, this is not, in the opinion of many, a great "house town." Way too many Fifties and Sixties "ranchburgers," charmless homes of an even earlier vintage, and scads of least common-denominator builder "tract homes" that insidiously appear wherever there's a legal lot. (All too often, these days, that will be when someone with a nice backyard gets greedy and sells his house and yard - separately.)

Once you've found the house of your dreams, or at least something that you're willing to settle for and rehabilitate, there begins a long series of scrimmages with a long line of "thems": the seller's real estate agent (and yours), the seller, the mortgage money people, property inspectors, appraisers, title insurers... It goes on. From the moment you decide to make an offer until the closing day, you'll be in a heightened state of alert trying to anticipate every problem before the property is put in your name. All too often, if my experiences are typical, when the dust settles, the deed's in hand and you're well into your first months in your new dwelling, that's when you begin to feel like the cat that watched the wrong mouse hole. Before the closing, you'll obsess over a possible drainage problem and a few termites; then, sitting on the couch in your living room, startled to hear in vivid Lucas sound the unsavory gurgle of water making its way from an upstairs toilet onward to the city sewer system, you wonder why your inspector didn't notice that the plumbing pipes in the wall were not insulated. Oh, well... next time you'll get it right.

Surely, there's a way to finesse a change in habitat - in Austin - how to pick from slim pickings and maybe, with just a bit of work, end up with a house that you can have chemistry with, without too many structural surprises. I went looking for answers - a few tips, really - from a couple of professionals whose opinions I myself frequently solicit. Paul Lamb, an architect whose visionary touches add magic, whimsy, and soul to dwellings where none before existed, and Don Crowell, builder par excellence - why couldn't he have built our home? - who's probably the contractor of choice for most of the city's great architects.


Austin Chronicle: Do you have a few words of wisdom for the prospective home buyer out there, demoralized in a slim-pickings market? In other words, when it becomes clear that the house of your dreams is not to be found in the Multiple Listing Service, is there an alternative route to happiness?

Paul Lamb: In my opinion, if there's one great thing that you like about a house, that's all you need. Walk into the house and trust your feelings - if you think to yourself, "I could live here," that's what you should listen to. Look for the character in a house - that something that you respond to - and find a way to play that up somehow, to turn the house into something you'll enjoy.

AC: Can you give us some examples of a few key changes that can be made in a house to maximum advantage?

P.L.: Everybody feels better in a house with good light and light is the easiest thing to monkey with. I like to add windows in unexpected places. It doesn't have to be in a living room behind the sofa. Maybe there's a place in the hall where you read the mail and you might add a window there to enhance that spot. Every house has one little eccentric space and if you respond to it, you can enhance it with a window. You might put a window somewhere where you want to get away from everyone for a few minutes to make that time even more special. Maybe a special moment for you is when you get your child up in the morning - add an east window in that room to add morning light to shine on that spot.

Maybe you would want to add a sitting room to a master bedroom or add an alcove in that room so that the bed is not the focal point of it. Other ways to add character to a house would be to figure out some way to relate the house to an outside area. Almost every house has some way to do this, whether it's a porch in the front or back, an area outside of a bathroom - maybe beyond a shower - or an outdoor area where you could build a fireplace.

Most people are afraid of individuality in a home and I'm not necessarily talking about weirdness, just a little eccentricity. We shouldn't be so hog-tied to conventional houses - it's important to blend the character in a house with your lifestyle, that's good living in a house and good architecture. Trust your instincts. And don't worry about resale value.

A.C.: One of my favorite rooms in a Paul Lamb house is often the bathroom. You've taken what in many homes is the most undistinguished room - either strictly functional, dank and dark, or cheesed up ad nauseam - and turned it into something amazing, a place you'd want to spend a lot of time in. You've added sunlight and space to a cramped, dark Hyde Park bathroom by going up - actually adding a second turreted, windowed story. Or added an enormous, high-ceilinged, window-studded, dance-studio-like master bathroom to a boring Fifties ranchhouse that turned out to be one of the most dynamic rooms in the house. How do you design a great bathroom?

P.L.: Bathrooms are big these days. It's not just the necessities of grooming that happen there; it's an event. It's a room where you can share a rare, intimate moment with someone without being disturbed, i.e. if you're both getting up at the same time or getting ready for bed at the same time. The Sixties ranchhouse design did not value the bathroom, the master bath was simply functional, closet-like - shower, toilet, sink, no tub - that was for the kids in the bigger bathroom down the hall.

I like a little volume in the bathroom. I have, in some houses, compartmentalized the messiest part - the shower - and the most private part - the toilet - in order to make the rest of the room somewhere that you could hang out in. Let it double as a dressing area, with the closets opening out from it.

A.C.: Any advice on accepting a home's limitations?

P.L.: Consider the character of the house. Houses have a certain style, which you can't fight and better like: It's its basic personality. You can do wonderful twists on a house's basic personality or do what I call turning up the volume on these, but you can't ignore its essential character and pretend it's something it's not. A Sixties ranchburger, for example, will always be a Sixties ranchburger: You can't make it into anything else. But though they're totally out of style, there're some nice features about them - everything's on one level, all horizontal, the kitchens are well laid out - it's very easy living.

Another consideration is how the house is sited on the lot. Does the house face in a direction that suits your lighting needs? A house that faces west, for example, gets hot (in the summer) western sun all afternoon and no sun in the morning. (The former might be worked around by interposing a great porch between you and that western sun.) A house that faces south has light that's the easiest to control; it's the most desirable direction. A north-facing house with not many windows has a different light quality - one with lots of windows offers a light similar to a painter's studio light. These are all things you should think about when considering whether your lifestyle needs can be met in a house.


A.C.: Is there a way to increase your chances of after-the-closing happiness with as few surprises as possible?

D.C.: I have an idea that may seem like a lot of trouble, or perhaps impractical in the kind of real estate market we often have here in Austin, or even too expensive, but given the enormous investment of buying a home, I think it's a good one. The plan is, to assemble a team, consisting of a property inspector, a builder, and an architect before you start shopping for a house so that when you find something you could get serious about, your team can come and check out the house before you make an offer. I would want to have the three of them together at the house at the same time, kicking the tires. It wouldn't take but maybe an hour for them to give me crucial information about what maintenance expenses I might expect to incur with this particular house over the length of time I expect to be living there. This way, the chemistry is different - you can make a more educated offer, knowing what you do about the house at the time, than if you go the traditional route of waiting until after your offer has been accepted (conditioned upon the house passing the inspection) when at that point everyone usually wants to ignore or downplay any problems that may exist.

A.C.: What would a builder and an architect bring to the decision that a conventional property inspector wouldn't?

D.C.: Sometimes the inspector will miss the big picture. His job is to tell you about immediate problems and the short-term future. It's not, for example, his job to know what is an inherent design defect in a house. Take a house with a flat roof. The inspector will tell you whether the roof is leaking now or if there is evidence of its having leaked in the past. What he may not tell you, or know, is that some types of older flat roofs need repair every three to four years. This is something you're more likely to hear from a builder or an architect. Other information an architect or a builder is more likely to offer you than an inspector, would be about such things as the effects that the presence or absence of an overhang - the eaves that extend beyond the roof - will have on the life of your home. An overhang on a house is extremely desirable - it protects the windows, the walls, and the interior from solar gain. Without an overhang, a house will need painting more frequently. With foundation problems, the inspector will likely note obvious problems but he will probably not be able to tell you whether the foundation in question is under-designed. I would want a structural engineer to take a look at that if I were going ahead with the sale.

A.C.: Any tips on picking an inspector?

D.C: Find somebody who's small enough to get under the house to take a good look under there.

A.C.: What if you're buying a new house?

D.C.: I would ask to see a set of blue prints, and interview the builder and the architect to get the history of the home's construction.

A.C.: Why are there so few interesting houses in Austin?

D.C.: Up until the last 20 years, the builders in Austin were not particularly skilled and the population could not support a good supply of architects. Only when income levels rise sufficiently to create a market for architects can a city support that profession. Builder-wise, there was an era in Austin, lasting until the early Sixties, of master builders. A master builder was a superlative craftsman who designed and built the entire house, from the framing to kitchen cabinets. He used very high quality building materials, including lumber. These days, builders delegate to subcontractors, the key being to find a good builder who will hire only good subs and not the cheapest. Also, the quality of materials, including lumber, has declined tremendously in the last 10 years. Lumber is no longer dried like it used to be before it's used. That problem can be mitigated by using a higher quality - though more expensive - lumber, this being something that a good builder will automatically do.

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