Friday, April 29, 2011


An old rerun of Hoosiers with Gene Hackman was playing yesterday on cable. Thinking back on my playing days (a long time ago!) I got a little nostalgic remembering the way things used to be. At the risk of sounding a little old here, today's modern game of basketball doesn't begin to resemble the game we played back in the early 70's! Not that our era was better - most would argue it wasn't, but the emphasis was totally different. We were dedicated to our team and to our school, not like today's players who are dedicated to the "I" which doesn't seem to be a letter in the word "TEAM."

That got me to thinking about the homebuilding business and the changes I have seen in thirty-four years. In many respects the industry has gotten much better. Materials and technology have evolved wonderfully into attractive features that most people desire. Engineered wood allows longer structural spans without support; longer dimension lumber yields higher ceilings; exotic harvested woods have created rich elegant finishes; quarried stone provides elegance and durability whether you are using it on the outside of your home or on the Kitchen countertops; and technological advancements now run parts of your home. The list goes on, and on.....

Unavoidably with monumental advancements comes increased regulation. City, state and federal regulations are "pinching" the industry to the point that most builders are screaming. Here are a few of the more common complaints:

  • Lending. The very lifeblood of the industry has been reduced to a mere trickle by overzealous federal regulators imposing rules that most homeowners, builders, and real estate investors can't meet. Just yesterday a report on Fox News highlighted nine big banks including J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America that had borrowed billions of dollars from the Federal Reserve at .008% and re-invested most of the proceeds in Treasury Bills that are yielding 3.2% currently! This is not what our industry needs!

  • Stricter Energy Codes. We all should be for conservation, but "going green" requires a lot of green! Before we can obtain our first construction inspection from our local municipality we have to submit plans to an independent third  party energy consultant who calculates numerous energy co-efficients that must comply with federal standards. The consultant must then perform their own inspections to verify compliance. Who do you suppose pays for all of that? Sadly, it's not the builder!

  • Local Building Codes. Particularly in Dallas and University Park the building codes change so often it most likely will vary from project to project when we apply for a permit. No such thing anymore as "walking a set of plans through" for a permit - we leave multiple sets to be reviewed and approved over the course of about a week.

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Big government must justify it's existence so the EPA has just instituted a rigorous set of lead paint abatement rules for remodeling homes built prior to 1978. Estimated by the EPA to cost no more than $1,000 per project, some builder friends who have "tented" their projects to limit particle migration, and then used  hepa vacuums while scraping lead paint, have seen costs upwards of $30,000. Oddly, if you don't remodel, and instead tear the house down destined for the dump, no special permitting or abatement procedures are required to protect against the migration of lead particles! Does this make any sense when we are so rigorously enforcing paint scraping?

  • Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). This self funded government agency used to only bother commercial construction sites as they looked for safety infractions that can fund their operations. With the recession in full bloom, and commercial construction almost non-existent, they have been making the rounds on residential sites. Just what we need!

  • Fuel Costs. Realizing that almost all of the materials necessary in the construction of a home have to come from somewhere that probably is not close, the cost of fuel potentially will have a dramatic effect on housing. Transportation costs for planes, trains, and automobiles most assuredly will rise meaning that this cost will be passed on to the consumer. On a microeconomic level just the fuel involved in getting workers and supervision to the jobsite will have an impact. "Pinched at the pump" threatens to have a big role in homebuilding in the very near future.

In editing this post I have realized that my text has become very political. Sorry!! When you are passionate about something you want to pursue it with as few encumbrances as possible. Obviously this is not the same business environment as we had back in 1978. But we are building much finer homes today than what was built back then. We will all adapt - but it sure would be easier if Uncle Sam could lighten up just a bit!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ungracefully Aged!

"Make it look like it's been there for 150 years!" That was the charge given to the project team by a client not long ago. Actually, come to think of it, that seems to be the charge given to many projects that are being built today. Dallas is so "new" in comparison with most of the towns of the old South that everyone seems to want "history" added to their project. Our history anchors us. It gives us a sense of bygone values which make us feel comfortable in these changing, uncertain times!

So we did - with the help of an arsenal of techniques, we turned something that is brand new; something that works perfectly; something that offers modern day function, into something very old. And it's really fun! I keep a copy of Country Living's Country Paint on my desk at all times. They have fabulous finishes, and they even tell you step by step how to do each finish!

It's all in the Finishes!

Naturally when you buy something brand new that's just the way it looks - brand new. So finding chemicals, glazes, waxes, even chains and tools that will scar the target materials requires some imagination and patience. Failure is common! If at first you don't succeed, try and try again! Adopt a mindset that makes the process fun and not drudgery.

Brand spanking new - but it doesn't look that way! The stucco (above) is applied over brick so that the wall has "movement" to it, all before the finish is rubbed with buttermilk and cow manure. We also like to use yogurt in some applications because it grows moss really quickly.

This was a finish out of Charleston, South Carolina that we were trying to copy. We just didn't have the 150 years to wait for our stucco to look like this!

Sometimes you have to "cheat" a little bit to acquire age. This Italian Mediterranean home was originally built in 1929. Everything from the dropped down roof to the left of the fireplace chimney, and to the right of the drainpipe, is new. Lucky for us we found the old quarry in Austin that produced the original limestone back in the 20's, and quarried all of the new stone for the additions out of the same pit. If you look carefully you will see that we stained an occasional limestone block with a rustic wash to make the new sections blend with the old. The old roof tile was carefully removed and blended with new tile before being re-applied so that all blended naturally together.

Old, refurbished, antique doors aid immeasurably to the aging process when used in combination with new materials. The doors below were discovered here locally, stripped and refinished to look old. Look carefully to see how the original rick-rack on the doors was duplicated on the cowling of the vent-a-hood - a really nice touch! Our cabinets also pick up the design with a diamond motif copied from the doors.

Even mistakes can sometimes work to your favor when aging materials. This copper vent-a-hood was originally ordered with a variegated (read: lime green) finish, but it came out looking like an easter egg! Our guys chemically washed and scrubbed the hood with acetone and steel wool and this was the result. Looks like it's been there for 150 years!

Finally, using family heirlooms in a brand new piece not only brings a sense of nostalgia to the home, but also a sense of history to the piece in which they are used. These Delph tiles are very old and valuable - perfect for enjoying every day in the Kitchen!

Monday, April 25, 2011

He has Risen - Indeed!

Easter always brings such happy celebrations for our family! Jesus Christ's rising from the dead is reason enough to celebrate, but we have always done Easter in a way which honors generational traditions started in Molly's family years ago. Through her family, our family, and now our kid's families the holiday "template" is always the same. Great family and friends, wonderful food, and a rousing easter egg hunt mark our annual celebration of Christ's ascension. Here are a few pictures:

Our Church is part of our family. We love to worship together and celebrate life!

Sometimes the anticipation of things to come is just too great to ignore! Shelby and Jake's daughter is ready to hunt easter eggs, and thinks all of this if for her!

Apparently all of "her" goodies weren't enough - we caught her eyeing her little cousins loot in hopes of maybe grabbing some of that as well!

Max and Whitney's son got into the easter egg hunt - but he is probably a year away from making a big impact.

These next two are our "adopted" grandkids from South Africa. Rarely can their real grandparents make holidays or events, so Molly and I step in where we can to support. Both the girls are so fun, and absolutely adorable!

Everyone had a wonderful time at Whit and Max's home! As you can see there wasn't much left for others to find.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Where Do We Start?

Just getting started on a new home or remodel project seems soooooo confusing! Should I hire the interior designer or the architect first? Is it the builder that can guide me through the treacherous waters of the initial phases?  'I want my yard to look like this' - should I get a landscape architect before I hire anyone else? It seems like there are so many choices...where do we begin?

In thirty-four years in the business I have been asked those questions countless numbers of times. To help clarify the issues I thought I might "standardize" the answer to help you get a running start.

Start with ideas! We always advocate that the client cruise through old home magazines like Veranda, Architectural Digest, D Home, Southern Living, Elle Decor, and Traditional Home to name just a few. Most ideas are not original so looking at pretty pictures helps solidify your tastes, and clarifies your thinking.

Group your pictures by rooms. A picture really is worth a thousand words, and grouping all the Dining Rooms together separate from the Family Rooms etc. ensures you get more of what you want in the design phase.

Measure all of the rooms in your existing home. Capture the room sizes on a 3 x 5 card. Having this information at your finger tips during the design process helps you to paint "word pictures" in your mind of the sizes that are being discussed. Maybe the architect is talking about the Dining Room being 13' x 17' - a quick look at your card may tell you that that is the current size of your existing Master Bedroom, but it will help paint a picture in your mind that can help you evaluate the size being discussed.

Purchase your lot or building site. Several years ago Molly and I started work on a fabulous home design before we closed the lot - boy were we surprised when the lot didn't close and our wonderful design didn't fit on anything else we were considering! Cities and municipalities all have setback requirements which regulate how close to the street or sideyards you can build. They become very important to the design of your home (or remodel). Also, deed restrictions which you would normally receive at closing have important design parameters that will need to be considered.

Build a Team! Initial members should include the architect; contractor; interior designer; structural engineer; and landscape architect. You should feel very comfortable with every member of the team. All team members should have and maintain the attitude that they exist on the team only to serve you. This is not the place for prima donnas - send them home!

Have a chemistry experiment... Give each member of our newly formed project team a simple assignment during concept design to see how they perform. If they don't perform well, or if they "can't play well with others", send them home. Your project team is no place for big egos! Not only do you want to feel comfortable with the abilities of each team member, you want to make sure that the different disciplines represented in the group blend well. If someone is not working out with a simple assignment, chances are they won't be a good long term player. Remember, second string players are always itching to get in the game!

Assign Design Development Tasks. As your project begins to take shape each different discipline should be looking at your home through different lenses. For instance, what is important to the structural engineer probably will not be important to the interior designer. That is not to say that some disciplines won't overlap - they will, but if the structural guy is placing furniture or selecting fabrics, we've got a real problem! Design Development should be a symphony! In a perfect world each project team member should have a very good idea of what you want by the completion of design development so that proper preliminary budgets can be developed.

Concept Approval. Once all the various disciplines have weighed in on not only their design but their preliminary budgets, if all looks within your expectations it's time to approve the concept.

Construction drawings. Just as noted above, every member should work hard on their own construction drawings so as to complete them by the time the architect completes construction drawings. Realistically the interior designer won't know all of your selections at the completion of construction drawings, but they should have a pretty good idea of where things are going so that they can help the contractor establish budgets.

Final Budgeting and Permitting. Upon completion of all of the construction drawings the contractor should be responsible for setting the final budget. This should include all of the other disciplines costs so that you can get a complete picture of the total project cost. When you approve the project cost you are ready for financing the project and applying for permits. You have finally found the starting line!

One Final Note: by introducing all of the project team members before starting concept design you will have a greater initial cost outlay for fees and services, but that should save you SUBSTANTIAL money in the long run! If every team member is doing their job they should be considering your wants and needs with a close eye on value engineering (read: saving money!) the project. We have found through the years that the most expensive project are the ones where the project team has not been built early and design has not considered better and less expensive ways to do the same thing. Remember: architects don't know cost - they know design! Rely on your other project team members to help you put your budgets together.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


I'm secure enough in myself to admit that my two grown daughters have gotten me hooked on the TV show The Bachelor! "Trashy" as the show is, we huddle around the boob tube (maybe even the term dates me!) in our respective Living Rooms to watch the weekly travails of the Bachelor or Bachelorette as they slink through a variety of weekly dates in search of their true love, and life mate. I mean...come on - what are the chances of actually finding someone to grow old with on national TV? It always seems to make for some hilarious text messages between each family as we speculate on the viability of each candidate!

One of the annoying aspects of each season of The Bachelor is that they shoot all of the episodes over the course of a few weeks and then wait four to six months to begin showing them in "primetime" either in the spring or fall television season. Where I could care less about the time lapse, the contestants are sworn by contract to secrecy about who is winning and who is losing. They always seem to want to bust about the latest gossip that their contracts won't allow them to dish. This last season Bachelor Brad Womack found the love of his life in Emily Maynard. In the last episode Brad proposed marriage which Emily accepted in "real time" before she was forced to sit at home for the four to six months and watch pre-recorded tape of him groping all of the other contestants. Needless to say, when we got to the concluding segment known as "After The Final Rose," Emily was barely speaking to Brad! Predictably the wedding is off. He is back in Austin, and she in Charleston.

So what in the world does this have to do with this blog? The basic principles that Brad violated in his pursuit of Emily occur way too often in business. "Trust" is the essential building block in all relationships! Brad was OK as long as his past didn't catch up with him, but as soon as Emily saw what Brad did with the other women, the bloom came off the flower (so to speak!).

In dealings between at least two parties, I have seen the same issues occur in most of my business endeavors:

  • Trust is earned, never given! All parties need to get comfortable with each other on a number of different levels: financially - how each entity is handling the money in the transaction; with communications between all involved parties; emotionally - the reaction to both good news and bad; even with the availability each offers to the other. It is not uncommon for one, or all parties to subconsciously give "tests" during the early moments of a transaction to see how the other reacts.

  • Transactions become difficult if trust is breached! For whatever reason if a party to a transaction loses trust in another party, most often the balance of the transaction is treacherous. PROTECT THE TRUST YOU ARE GIVEN - JEALOUSLY!

  • Breached trust is often unrepairable. Even though the relationship is patched up, a seed of doubt has been sown leaving the offended party with questions.

  • Honest communication helps the transaction trust quotient. All parties bringing their separate pieces of the puzzle to the table in an open, honest forum makes for healthier trust, and a better project!

Emily Maynard ended up giving Brad Womack a poor report card because her trust was violated. Brad may have gotten his $50,000 engagement ring back, but he lost the real prize!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Just this morning I started reading Matthew Kelly's book The Rhythm of Life, and I can already tell that his insightful writing will have an impact on my life. But it got me to thinking about "choices." Kelly's premise early on in his book is that life is a series and compilation of choices. Periodically we can look back and see the value in our lives based on the choices we have made.

So much of my work through the years has centered around the same issue. The choices required for building a home are not necessarily life altering, but most often they do impact the lives of family members. Is it red or green; smooth or rough; big or small; new fresh and sleek or rustic; does it go here, or here; hot or cold; technologically advanced or old school...the list goes on and on! It can be totally overwhelming! Often we become paralyzed with possibility (see 3/3/11 blog).

Without reading ahead I can almost sense where Matthew Kelly is going with his book. What do you want out of the project - can you clearly articulate the feelings, emotions, and desires that need to be satisfied for this project to make you happy? Can the successful completion of the project make you happy? Kelly advocates getting in touch with yourself so that when faced with choices, you make good ones.

Every picture you see on this blog represents a series of choices. Color and material preferences have been identified in each of these photos creating a symphony of decisions which resulted from a myriad of potential choices.

Without having spent inordinate amounts of time preparing a "sermon," let me share a few thoughts about maximizing the process of building and navigating through the sea of choices.

  • Assemble a "world class" team of people that you feel very comfortable with that have a knowledge of the building process and can help you navigate through thousands of choices. Because the disciplines of building interrelate (architect, builder, structural design, interior design, and landscape design) I advocate building your team early - it will save you inordinate amounts of time and money.

  • Take a personal inventory. Ahead of beginning the design process understand what your really like, and what you really don't!

  • Take a family inventory. Understanding what your family likes and their expectations for the building process minimizes surprises.

  • Be fearless! Just like those multiple choice tests we used to take in school when you don't know the answer, usually your first instinct in correct. Remember that everyone makes mistakes, and most of the mistakes can be fixed.

  • Don't waiver! If you've done your homework you will be making good decisions. Just because two elements of a large picture don't match when you choose them, they are just that - two elements of a much larger picture!

Trust the team you have assembled. If their core values and sense of style appealed to you enough to select them in the first place, probably their guidance will reflect the project parameters which you established at the start of the job. Remember: Hold things loosely, and people tightly! The choices you make on design and construction of your new home or remodel represent "things," and "things" are not worth holding tightly!

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Baby Shower to Remember...

My wife Molly (a/k/a "Dolly" to the grandkids!) is always doing something for someone else! Some friends of ours are celebrating the addition of their third granddaughter and Molly, Lea, Cheri, and Susie threw a wonderful welcoming party. The event was sooooo cute, I just had to include it in my blog! Here are some photos...

Light hors d'oeuvres were served, and a friend of ours who works for Dr. Pepper really wanted the ladies to try Snapple's new papaya/mango lite tea. The tea was a big hit, but everyone raved about the decorations!

Nothing like a "sip and see" to bring out the ladies to celebrate! Everyone loves the guest of honor and her family. What a great way to welcome the baby into the circle of friends!

A good time was had by all....

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fusch's Fabulous French!

(Editor's Note: Robbie Fusch almost singlehandedly brought elegant design back to Dallas in the late 1980's. Years ago the Hal Thompson's, Charles Dilbeck's and other great architects of Dallas's history designed and built beautiful homes. Following World War II the population of Dallas exploded - and so did elegance! In the ensuing years architectural style was limited by how quickly builders could get the design off the drawing board and standing up in the neighborhood. Style and elegance suffered. Along came Fusch who travelled Europe extensively and brought some really great ideas home with him. Here is his story (and some of his work) in his own words...)

I love French architecture! After growing up in Dallas and going to school at Texas Tech, I have been practicing architecture in Dallas for over 40 years. So what caused this infatuation with French design? It all started shortly after college when my wife, Susan and I made our first trip to Europe. My English cousin Barley was getting married, and we decided the opportunity to travel in Europe was too great to pass up. The ceremony took place in southwestern England in the Cotswold Hills of Gloucestershire. What a beautiful country! We had never seen anything as charming or heartwarming. The countryside was something we had never experienced before - the picturesque villages stole my heart! Susan and I fell in love with the timeless beauty of Europe. We experienced wonderful visits to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and of course France. All of these countries are so beautiful! To me, the common threads of Europe's charm are the age and history, and the worn elegance and  patina of all the villages, buildings, cottages and gardens.

I love Texas, but in comparison this was not Europe! After spending five years in Lubbock trying to learn about beauty in architecture, little inspiration could be found - except in books! Back in Dallas, everything was so shiny and new. If it is old we tear it down and build something new. I started my own architecture firm in 1976 during the best business market anyone could ever ask for. There was tremendous growth in the area. We have enjoyed many more ups and downs in what seems to have been an endless boom cycle for the last four decades. This has been wonderful for business but terrible for good architectural design. Homes have been designed too quickly, slapped together and sold to eager buyers who knew no better. There were 50,000 people moving into the Dallas area each year that needed housing. Sadly the consequence, for the most part, was cookie cutter plans with ugly facades. We called them "plan shop builder homes" and still do. Consider me guilty of taking advantage of the prosperity of the seventies and eighties that has allowed us to develop and produce many charming, authentic French and English designs. To their credit our wonderful clients have allowed us to rigorously pursue authentic European designs.

What really focused us on France and French architecture was a trip with a client to purchase antique fireplaces. She needed ten mantles for her new French Chateau that we were designing in Dallas. With the size of the project, my client was very focused on the design of her home. She wanted it to have authenticity and a sense that her home was seemingly plucked out of France and placed in Dallas. Previously we had done plenty of "French designs" for other clients but this time I did not feel comfortable with my grasp of authentic French architecture. Nothing like needing to become an expert in a hurry, especially when your client already thinks you are one! On that trip and every subsequent trip, I was careful to observe and study the styles of different regions, and the materials and the different construction techniques used throughout the centuries. It helped me to see the cause and effect of construction and how, over time, emerging technologies impacted building capabilities and architectural style.

Until about a century ago it was very costly and difficult to import building materials from long distances. There were no highways or trucks to supply artisans with products from far away. Naturally, builders used what was readily available, sometimes even reusing salvaged parts of old buildings. Whole villages were built out of the same stone, in the same architectural style, so in seeing the village you experience a very natural, subtle and unified appearance. We call this the "Local Vernacular." For example, steep slate roofs are common in the north of France because of the readily available slate common to the area that will have to carry an abundance of snow. Conversely, shallow clay barrel-tile roofs are prevalent in the south where they simply need to shed water and provide a nice shady overhang. In different regions you will see houses made of brick. Other regions have homes made of stone. Field stone was used in farming regions because, for their crops to properly grow, the farmers would clear their fields of rock and use the stone to build a barn or house. In other areas where soil, sand, and clay were the only materials available the people made clay bricks for their homes. Differences in region, time period, function, and wealth have produced numerous styles all that can be called French. Naturally these observations have compelled me to focus on how we should use materials in a historically authentic way.

Just like the numerous adventures we have experienced throughout Europe, design and construction here in Dallas has also been a journey. New and varying materials and styles challenge us to blend architectural designs of old with what the market is demanding. I like the challenge - I've always liked the challenge! It's what caused me to bring great architectural design to a city that I love!