Monday, June 27, 2022 Jun 27, 2022
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Cutting Edge Materials And Design On Richland Chambers Reservoir

Cutting edge materials and design keep Harl and Jim Asaff’s house on Richland Chambers Reservoir as cool on the inside as it looks from the outside.
By Rebecca Sherman |

Owners Jim and Harl Asaff relax in butterfly chairs on the rooftop deck overlooking the lake. Photography by Stephen Karlisch A fire-engine red spiral staircase goes directly from the kitchen to the third floor rooftop deck for entertaining. The floor of the library was raised in order to protect the roots of an old post oak. The Morning Glory lamp is from Aquacreations. Sofa is Cassina from Scott + Cooner.

Cool Haus
Cutting edge design and materials keep Jim and Harl Asaff’s house on Richland Chambers Reservoir as cool on the inside as it looks from the outside.

Sliding doors with a Chinese dragon motif were bought by the Asaffs on a trip to Hawaii. (Below) A canvas tarpaulin was installed in the angular prow to protect the porch area against driving rain. Outdoor sofas are in Donghia’s Oahu pattern.

It’s midday during another hotter’n hell Texas summer, but inside Harl and Jim Asaff’s lake house 90 minutes south of Dallas, the air conditioner is off. The windows and doors are flung wide open, and a refreshing cross breeze blows through the kitchen where the Asaffs and three other couples are cooking up a storm. It may be pushing 100 degrees out, but inside- even with the ovens going – the temperature stays a pleasant 70ish.

Thanks to cutting edge design and materials, the Asaffs’ weekend retreat will remain a sanctuary from the broiling Texas sun no matter how hot it gets. That wasn’t the case with the Asaffs’ first lake house in east Texas, a typical wood and glass, pier and beam structure. Harl says: “What we learned was even though we wanted to be out in the elements, we ended up sitting in the air conditioning all summer, looking out the window.

“That’s what started the idea for our new house. Most nights now we sleep with the windows open, and we only turn the air on at night during August when the wind lies flat. We use the terrace all the time because it’s so convenient and so cool. We very rarely close the house.”

Pioneering builder Alan Hoffmann worked closely with architect Art Rogers to design the structure of the Asaffs’ new 4,600-square-foot, energy-efficient, “green” home. It’s so beautiful that you’d never know it is made from insulated concrete. Insulated concrete form, or ICF, is the key to keeping the house cool. “The house achieves a static temperature level all year round,” Hoffmann says. “It never drops to freezing in the winter, and in summer it will never reach 90, even if the air isn’t on.”

A third floor landing provides storage for pillows, hats, and hammocks, and accommodates the attic fan.

Eleven-inch insulated concrete walls and a highly insulated concrete roof prevent the sun’s heat from penetrating. Rogers says: “I’m under the impression that because of the angle of the sun in Texas, only 10 percent of the heat inside a house comes from the walls. The rest comes from the sun on the roof,” so a well-insulated top makes a huge difference when it comes to energy efficiency.

There are more advantages than energy efficiency to building an ICF house. Spaciousness is a big one. Because the structure is so strong, it allows for more wide-open, loft-like spaces than a traditional wood-framed structure could support. There’s only one load-bearing wall in the Asaffs’ house, and it’s a small one in the pantry. To carry out Rogers’ design for an all-open first level, Hoffmann reinforced the concrete walls with steel. An ICF-designed home costs about 6 percent more to construct than a wood-framed house, Hoffmann concedes, but in this case he believes the Asaffs saved money. “It would have cost so much more to build it with wood reinforced with steel in the open design they wanted,” he says. And, it would not have been nearly as strong.

A thatched roof lanai stands among the 100-year-old oaks next to the vegetable garden.

A year into construction, after the walls and roof had gone up, the Asaffs’ house was hit by a tornado, as were 16 other houses in the area. Theirs was the only one that did not sustain major damage, despite a direct hit. “ICF houses are hurricane proof,” Hoffman says. “This particular one with its reinforced walls can withstand in excess of 200 mph winds.”

There’s one drawback to living in an insulated concrete house, Hoffmann says: No cell phone service. It’s easily remedied with a $300 booster device. Bad cell phone reception and slightly higher construction costs still don’t outweigh the pluses. These houses are also greener. “My passion for ICF houses is that they reduce greenhouse gasses by 50 to 70 percent because they are not using as much energy. There were 50,000 new homes built in Dallas last year, and most of those were not built green.” The carbon footprint, or negative environmental impact, created by each of those houses is huge, he says.

The Asaffs’ house, like most he builds, has waxed concrete floors, which means there’s no harmful “off-gassing” from carpeting or other synthetic flooring. The Asaffs’ exterior is white stucco over concrete, but Sheetrock and other traditional building materials can be also be used in conjunction with concrete walls, he says, so there’s no limit to the house’s style or design. “It really upsets everybody’s concept of how a home can be built,” Hoffmann says. 

Left to right, builder Alan Hoffmann, designer Donn Bindler, and architect Art Rogers. Portrait by Elizabeth Lavin

A revolving globe sculpture from a Santa Fe gallery juxtaposes the angles of the house.

With its angular rear prow and porthole windows, the lake house looks like a postmodern luxury liner cutting its way through a sea of trees, many of them 100-year-old post and water oaks. This wasn’t a superfluous design device. “Edges of the house, the entryway, and the porches are all at angles,” Rogers says. “They relate to the trees. We surveyed exactly where those trees were and took great pains to avoid them.” A handful of smaller trees were carefully dug up and moved by landscape architects at Armstrong-Berger Landscape Architecture. Only one tree died, and the remaining trees create a cooling canopy over the house. Harl loves the way the water blows off the lake during storms, hitting the house at its angles and driving past the windows in a rush of droplets and cooled air. “We get weather from every direction,” she says. “Water can come up to the second floor from the wind.”

Storms, trees, lake, and sky become part of the weekend’s entertainment at the lake house, located in a remote area between Corsicana and Athens. There are no restaurants, movie theaters, or shopping centers nearby, so the Asaffs spend their time reading in the hammocks, shooting skeet, riding jet skis, fishing, and fixing things around the house. The TV is rarely switched on. Jim likes to take his restored 1952 Chris-Craft out for a sail, and their grown son plays paintball in the woods with his friends. Always, without fail, they invite friends over and cook.

“Most of the people we know love to cook,” Harl says. “Our first meal here was with some friends from Mexico City, and they made paella outside on the grill.” Since then, the house has hosted a steady stream of friends and foodies who arrive on Saturday morning, cook all day, and feast well into the night.

A ball type chain screen from Shimmer Screen separates the closet from the master bath. Sok Tub is from Kohler.

Oahu cushions and pillows in primary colors from Donghia decorate the sunbathing area on the rooftop deck.

“This is strictly a vacation house,” says Donn Bindler, ASID, the Asaffs’ longtime friend who helped design the interior spaces. “There are minimal closets, because people gather for a day, then leave. The house is very unstructured and open. Harl doesn’t believe in doors, so there are no closet or cabinet doors.” Furniture is minimal, almost an afterthought. “I had a floor plan in mind, but we filled the house with furniture from sample sales and recycled from their high-rise apartment. The staircase and roof deck are more important than the sofas.”

Two spectacular staircases designed by Bindler are showstoppers. A triangular, floating staircase in the entry, influenced by Mexican architects Luis Barragan and Ricardo Legorreta, was built from steel and concrete, and appears to hover precariously between the first and second floors. To compound the illusion, the stairway’s 3-foot steps widen to 4 feet as you travel upward. Hoffman says: “I’d never seen a staircase like this, and it was a challenge to build. There was no way we could have done this in a wood house.” To hold up the floating steel steps, a steel plate was mounted to the wall, and the steps were bolted and welded to it. A three-story, fire-engine red spiral staircase opens onto the roof, which is furnished with Donghia-cushioned, concrete benches. Many people are unnerved by the openness of both the staircases and won’t go up them, Bindler says. “This is not a house for the faint of heart,” he laughs. Maybe so. But it is a very cool one.

Front and back views of the steel and concrete floating staircase. Tahitian banana boat vessel from Big Mango was a house gift from Bindler to the Asaffs. Vietnamese soldiers on the entry wall are from Allan Knight.

For more information on insulated concrete form homes, visit

Click here for recipes and our story on the Asaffs and their friends in the kitchen.

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