A Modern House in Kessler Woods by Buchanan Architecture

All Photos Courtesy of Aaron Opsal and Buchanan Architecture

Rustic & Refined . . . When Aaron and Amy Opsal purchased the land for their first home together in the Kessler Woods development of Oak Cliff in 2006, they were newly engaged and still nurturing their fledgling ad agency, The Brand Hatchery, which they’d launched together a few years earlier.

Building a house from the ground up was another big element on an already overflowing plate. “It was kind of crazy,” Amy recalls. “Here we were trying to create a space together when we were also trying to plan a wedding and build our business.”

The two-story stucco wall sometimes acts as the perfect
backdrop for watching movies while the family swims in the pool.
Designed by Buchanan Architecture.

With resources spread thin, the budget for the new house was tight. But financial constraints didn’t stop the Opsals from interviewing seven of the top architects in town, including Russell Buchanan of Buchanan Architects, whom they ultimately hired not only because they admired the earthy and restrained modern design style he’s known for, but like the Opsals, Russell and his wife Karen had recently started their own firm. “We work as a husband and wife team and we liked the fact that Russ and Karen did, too,” says Aaron.

A glassed-in entry cantilevers over the lap pool.
Designed by Buchanan Architecture.

Clients like to save money, but they also often expect sculptural or artistic flourish, Russell says. But how to up the ante while staying on budget? The answer for this house was to create a memorable entry. “Often in modern architecture the front door is forgotten,” says Russell, whose design welcomes visitors via a wooden bridge, which makes a titillating two-inch gap before leading to a separate glassed-in vestibule that cantilevers dramatically over a lap pool below. At night the floating glass box glows like a lantern. “It’s about light and levity in that single element,” he says. “It’s structurally bad-ass.”

Materials used in the house include concrete, stucco, gravel,
glass, and COR-TEN steel, which rusts naturally into a protective finish.

The house's geometry shows off simple, beautiful materials.

Russell’s understated concept for the cost-conscious house didn’t scrimp on design, but it did rethink materials and construction. Essentially an elegant rectangular box clad in COR-TEN steel and glass, the simple architecture kept things from becoming complicated, while “smart framing” -- a method that utilizes the standard four-foot building module throughout the structure -- kept costs in check.

Beautiful riff-cut white oak and plaster-clad concrete envelop the entry stairwell

Open the front door, and you’re inside a 26-ft. tall, plaster-clad entry tower with stairs leading up towards the private areas of the house, and down into the public areas. (The exterior slab of plaster on the tower has served on occasion as an outdoor movie screen while the family lounges in the pool.)

On the west side of the house, windows are placed high and narrow
to allow light without the heat of the late afternoon sun. White-washed
pine walls and ceiling envelop the room. The sectional is
from Room & Board; floor lamp is Design Within Reach;
wood table is Cantoni.

Because it was impossible to know what would be built up
around the house later, Russell Buchanan carefully placed
window to assure that every view is a good one.

The Opsals, neither of whom had lived in a modern house before, had only the vaguest idea of what they wanted when they started. “We didn’t want the biggest house in the neighborhood,” says Aaron. “We wanted to build a smaller house and use it more efficiently.” With kids in the not-to-distant future, the resulting 2,600 square ft., three-bedroom and two-and-a-half bath floor plan provided the room they needed to grow without wasting space.

A custom, ebonized riff-cut white oak cabinet becomes
a room divider. The family dog Pepper is pictured.

White-washed pine ceilings and walls give the open kitchen and
living areas warmth amid easy-to-care-for polished concrete flooring.
Kitchen fixtures are from TKO Associates.

The kitchen table, chairs, and bar stools are a mix of
inexpensive pieces from West Elm, Design Within Reach,
and Room & Board.

The Opsals gave their architect free reign to come up with a cool design within their limited budget, but they did have one request: Make use of the morning light. An early riser, Aaron is up before dawn each morning making coffee, reading the paper, and watching the sun come up. (With the ensuing birth of their two children, Isabella and Oliver, Amy’s mornings have also started a lot earlier.) To best capture that rosy first light, all of the glass in the house was oriented due east, with large storefront windows that open onto private courtyards. “Russ did an incredible job of editing the views.
The house was built in the middle of the development and it still feels private,” says Amy.

“One of the challenges with living in a modern space is finding a place to put things,” says Amy, who along with Aaron created a collage wall in the living room with string and wooden laundry clips, where they hung trinkets from their travels, wedding pictures, ticket stubs, wine labels, and notes to each other. The co-mingling of high-low furnishings and materials is one of their home’s most appealing aspects. “When you’re building a house, it’s easy to add expensive items as you go along,” says Aaron. “But Russ was good about reminding us that you can achieve luxury with industrial materials and uniqueness.”

In a modern house storage is always at a premium.
Here, a pair of metal stools from DWR pull double
duty as seating and shelving.
A narrow shelf is a
rotating showcase for photographs and found objects.

Inside, a narrow palette of simple materials serves to be both cost-effective and beautiful. Polished concrete gleams on the floors downstairs, and white-washed pine envelops the walls and ceilings of the open kitchen, dining, and living areas, like a sleek Bauhaus version of a lodge home. “The whole house has a refined rawness to it,” says Aaron.

For Amy's birthday, Aaron created a collage of pages torn
from classic paperback books including Gone with the Wind and Star Wars.

There were a few splurges. Several large cabinets that serve as room dividers were custom made from ebonized riff-cut white oak, and the fixtures in the bathrooms and kitchen came from TKO Associates. The furnishings are a mix of antiques and inherited family pieces, such as the baby grand piano that belonged to Amy’s mother, and inexpensive finds from Ikea, West Elm, and Design Within Reach. There’s no expensive art here -- the house is adorned with personal items that reveal the couple’s creativity and passions. Aaron’s own photography graces a ledge in the living room, and pages torn from paperback books, tacked to a wall in the guest bedroom, serve cleverly as art (Amy, who was an English major in college, loves to read).

An extra bedroom serves as a study and includes a wall
painted with chalkboard paint, which Aaron and Amy use as an
inspiration board, similar to one they have at their ad
agency offices at the Brand Hatchery.

Amy Opsal in an inspired moment.

To read my original story, which appears in the March 2012 issue of Modern Luxury magazine, go here.