Material Dance

In the scrubby, rolling landscape of the Texas Hill Country, along Highway 41 in Kerr and Real counties, lies a small strip of land known as The Divide. Here, on the Edwards Plateau, the watershed drains north to the Llano River, east to the Frio River, and west to the Nueces River. In the 1880s, settlers staked their claims on this land, and once windmills and barbed wire arrived, the region became home to cattle ranches and other agricultural enterprises long the lore of Texas history.

The Dietert Ranch is among the handful of large, successful family ranches that were established during the late 19th century and later subdivided among family members. This parcel, a 5,000-acre ranch located between Junction, Leakey, and Rocksprings, provides a weekend and vacation retreat for a family now based in Midland. When the owners approached Mark Wellen, FAIA, of Rhotenberry Wellen Architects to design a ranch retreat, they knew they wouldn’t be getting a standard-issue traditional ranch house. Wellen has long explored agricultural and industrial references in his work, and this was a perfect opportunity to continue those investigations. “I have a continuing appreciation for the inherent elegance and potential held by pre-engineered metal structures,” said Wellen. “This project was an opportunity to interpret that building typology while fully engaging nature and developing a dialogue with the landscape.” 

The topography lacks any dramatic features and is interrupted only by motts of oak trees on the gentle hills. The owner’s only stipulation was that the house have a second floor to provide long views through and above the tree canopy. In this context, the house itself becomes an object in the landscape. A meandering approach from the main highway offers glimpses from a distance, giving sly hints of the building, which sits in a natural clearing (no trees were removed from the site). The final, formal approach is centered on a large dogtrot — an overt appropriation of the traditional building types of the region. This orientation establishes the building as a barrier point — a simple human-made demarcation — in the otherwise-untouched landscape. The dogtrot provides a peek to vistas beyond. 

The architecture plays with ideas of light and shade, capturing and choreographing breezes as well as rethinking tried and true forms — the dogtrot, the simple shed — within the framework of a tightly edited material palette. The 4,000-sf house is expressed as an uncomplicated box under a metal shed structure. Only one room deep, the two-story volume invites the prevailing breezes to move through it, while the shed helps shade the structure and cool the air that circulates around and over it. Despite its programmatic simplicity, the building unfolds in a series of indoor and outdoor spaces that reveal unexpected depth and complexity. Balconies jut from the second floor; sliding panels create a protective armature, when needed, on the ground floor. Openings provide interplay between solid and void, while sunlight breathes life into the materials, animating vertical surfaces and infusing added dimension into the simple but carefully curated ensemble.

Entering the dogtrot, the house’s entry foyer is to the left, where stairs and an elevator lead to the second floor. To the right is a self-contained bunkhouse that sleeps up to eight for extended family gatherings. Wellen placed living, dining, and kitchen, as well as the master suite, upstairs. Ascending from the building’s core, the arrival on the second floor is an inviting opening-up into the surrounding landscape and endless sky. These spaces — living and dining on one end, master suite on the other — are surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows. Balconies on all sides offer 

outdoor spaces in direct line with the cooling breezes. An oak tree canopy at the master bedroom end provides a sense of protection and intimacy, while the living room end is open to long views.

To accentuate the lightness of the construction, the interior ceiling is held away from the structure, restating the exterior spatial relationship between barn and house. The upstairs spaces are at once open and protected. “The rhythm of columns of engineered wood posts along the glass perimeter act as tree trunks, defining the interiors without obscuring the view,” said Wellen. Strong vertical and horizontal planes interact but seem not to directly intersect, further reinforcing the sense that air and light permeate the very frame of the building. Detailing was given exquisite attention with a view to making it almost invisible. All hardware is fully customized; doors and windows are frameless, and the dominant material, Douglas Fir, is allowed to shine, its Mondrian-esque application subtly highlighting the natural grain pattern. 

Elevating the rugged, durable, and low-maintenance exterior material palette to a refined expression of form and function required both gut-level knowledge and hands-on research. On the ground, the house sits on a level, limestone-flagged plinth that allows the natural grade to taper away from the building. Board-formed concrete makes up the base, a reference to traditional ranch construction techniques. Wellen observed that this clearly defined base lightens the building’s touch on the land. “Sometimes, particularly at low light, the house takes on the feel of a ship in the harbor, floating effortlessly in its environment,” he said.

The large shed of hot-dipped, galvanized metal is the most blatant and unmistakable reference to agri-industrial architecture. The house is hunkered underneath a metal roof, somewhat protected from the harsh sun and other elements. Wellen prepared mock-ups of exterior materials to see how they would weather. Alongside the elemental materials of steel and concrete, the cementitious board was a key selection. The design team researched every board available and selected the one that weathered most like concrete while complementing the galvanized metal, which eventually turns to an even gray. A sense of timelessness and comfort was the objective. This is supported subtly by the various concrete applications and the contrast between galvanized and naturally weathered steel on the balconies, which make, in Wellen’s words, “interesting dance partners.”

Outdoor patios become a substrate of the larger object, gaining additional protection from the balconies. The balconies themselves are defined by perforated screens that are at once visually transparent and substantial, their rusty patina echoing the red dirt of the landscape. The balconies provide a full experience of the expanse of landscape, as well as an unusual eye-level view of the nearby windmill — “an added benefit,” said Wellen. Like the adjacent rock tank, the windmill is an original remnant of the ranch. Its presence helps anchor the modern structure to the history of the site and provides a focal point for long, restful contemplations on nature and the length of the horizon.

As the latest iteration of Wellen’s ongoing experiment with agrarian materials and forms, the Dietert Ranch house is an expression of dualities: containment and openness, ruggedness and refinement, traditional vernacular and modern interpretation. Neither romantic nor nostalgic, it is a unique exploration of the human need for both shelter from, and coexistence with, the environment, rendered with a clear eye and a steady hand. 

Canan Yetmen is a writer based in Austin. 

Published in Texas Architect March/April 2014.