Reporter’s Notebook Reaching for the Sky

The Big Sky development near Denton is banking on a whole new kind of appeal-a sense of connection to the earth. The plan is so unlikely it just might work.

hen the light is right,” says Peter Malin, “You CM hardly see the house.”

We are standing on a rise in a plot of prairie west of Denton, looking across the fields to the house on the far margin. It’s typical Texas weather-a hot afternoon in February-but out in the middle of the grassy field, it’s comfortably cool. The breeze waxes and wanes but never stops. There’s nothing to stop it but a string of burr oaks around the edges.

Malins right. The sky is vast and the changing shadows and drifting clouds reflect on the dull metal sheathing of the house so that the building almost disappears, a trick of the light making it melt into the landscape. The house and the land belong naturally to the sky.

“Not seeing the house” is hardly the point of most Dallas developments, where the rule is the showier the better (latest trend: at-home observatories and 24-hour guards on duty). But this is Big Sky, Texas, a contrary development that’s trying to be the antithesis of “big, bad development.” a place that’s banking on the atavistic instead of the ostentatious, that’s trying to sell itself by awakening the aesthetic senses and a sense of connection to the earth. Big Sky is taking the long view towards real estate and the vanishing landscape. It’s a reverse psychology that’s so unlikely, it just might work.

Malin ’s a left-brain businessman looking for a way to satisfy his right brain. He has a multi-faceted curiosity-earned a degree in American Studies, wrote a thesis on the Grateful Dead, has a real estate consulting business. He wanted to become more hands-on with the land, so when he heard about a 1,700-acre ranch in Denton County that had to be sold for estate taxes, it seemed like destiny. The ranch included the highest point in Denton County-you can see all the way to Krum, 16 miles or so away. He loves the unbroken prairie. Owning this property has inspired a crash course in prairie ecology-Malin knows the names of the different grasses we’re walking on, can tell one weed from another, and can identify birds on the wing. At first. Malin and his partner Ken Bruder had ranchettes in mind for their piece of the prairie. Then the neighbors to the south put their property up for sale. and Malin thought, my God, that’s my view. That’s when he realized what he wanted to sell. Malin and Binder bought the property to the south and rejected the ranchette plan. “We couldn’t protect our view by owning all of Denton County,” Malin says. So the partners, with city planner/landscape designer Kevin Sloan and architect Max Levy (who had recently designed Bruder’s house), devised a design that would develop just the periphery of the property. The four agreed on a mission to develop the land by preserving what had attracted them to it in the first place. The awe-someness of raw prairie. And the big sky.

ECENTLY, LUNCHING AT A DOWNTOWN club, a dozen guys-in-ties sat at a long table looking out over the streets and highways of north downtown Dallas. The conversation turned to suburbs: What’s wrong with them. Why in-towners are so condescending towards them. Why we wouldn’t live there. One man summed up the opinion of, I think, most Dallasites. “It’s just too ugly out north,” he said. “There’s nothing there-it’s flat, there aren’t any trees or hills. I want to live somewhere that’s more beautiful than that.”

He wants to live Someplace Else, Because-except for the “ugly” part-he’s describing North Texas.

It’s a major complaint of newcomers. North Texas is flat. And treeless. There really aren’t any mountains, scenic rivers, natural lakes. The land rolls; it doesn’t rise. All those four-bedroom, two-story brick houses stick out like skyscrapers on a desert. They don’t fit the landscape, and the landscaping is too new to camouflage the starkness.

But North Texas isn’t ugly. It’s fragile. A parking lot on the side of a mountain adapts to the mountain. Pave a prairie, and the prairie disappears. It takes acres and acres together for the North Texas landscape to make its point. The prairie is the sea of grass the pioneers talked about, and there’s nothing impressive about a tidepool. Not until you sense its rolling vastness does the ocean become awesome, even frightening. Once, the grasslands of the Western U.S. were like that. But by the time you’ve paved a road, put in phone lines, built a house, and fenced a yard, the prairie has no power. In fact, it’s become a lawn.

Big Sky is a little different. Its loosely New Urban design allows, ultimately, for 150 homesites around the edge of of a thousand-acre prairie reserve and 150 residences of varying types in a projected village on one edge of the property. Except for four larger prairie lots, each home site is approximately 1.25 acres and costs about $50,000. A fenced portion at the center of each site, about 100 feet by 200 feet, is available for building; the rest of each plot will flow into the common preserve-650 acres of unbroken prairie in the middle of the tract. So there will be 50 feet, fence to fence, between houses and 75 feet, house to house (about the size of the green-ways in Greenway Park).

The middle piece, the prairie, will be left intact as common land for the residents of Big Sky to use as they determine best; a crop of wheal, free grazing, wild prairie. Its stated purpose is for agriculture, wildlife, and recreation; it takes a 75 percent vole to change the land use, and Texas Parks and Wildlife has put together a long-term management plan for the entire property. Fire and bison were nature’s controls in the praire ecosystem, so the first step at Big Sky to restore native prairie was a controlled burn, A wildlife biologist (headed for a degree in Prairie Preservation) from the Texas Society for Ecological Restoration controlled the burning last spring, and lots of people turned out for it, Malin recalls, like a bam raising. A grove of burr oaks, a native prairie tree that withstands fire, will mark the entrance to Big Sky.

Malin stands in the middle of the field, gesturing toward the far creek-which he envisions restored as a wetland environment for songbirds-and circling around to indicate the hiking and horse trails he hopes to see. But the only sign of life right now at Big Sky is a slightly odd-looking house-or is it three?- over by the road, barely visible because of the way its galvanized (Galvalume) siding reflects the sky.

This spec house designed by Max Levy is pari of Phase 1, which will include 28 houses on 190 acres. When you consider the fact thai one in three homes in the country is manufactured, a designed community in a place where even most house designers are contractors seems ambitious, but the invisible house on the prairie is there to prove the point. Jim and Carolyn Clark bought the first lot, and Levy is designing their multi-building retreat, but this model home is the first residence built at Big Sky, and it’s the example of what the development is all about.

Emily Dickinson said it best (as she said everything best), that all it takes to make a prairie is one clover and one bee, and revery. “The revery alone will do, if bees are few.” This is a house that encourages revery, full of places for solitude. Three separate two-story buildings are linked by a screened porch across the front with a big white-painted brick fireplace. Features are a response to the landscape-sliding barn doors to control light and wind, porches to catch breezes and keep cool.

The upstairs windows are precisely lined up, so if they’re all open, you can look straight through the three buildings out onto the prairie. Outdoors flows into indoors almost imperceptibly; the views are in the house and around the house, and you are in the view.

This first house, like the ones to follow, has strict guidelines, set in place by an advisory board of architects (Frank Welch, Mark Anderson, Bruce McCall, David Oglesby, and Levy) who studied Texas vernacular buildings to come up with the code, which basically lists the elements of a good barn. Big Sky’s design credo is based on the relationship of place to building. The building is what links a place to a person. This house works on the prairie the same way adobe works in the Southwest-it grows naturally out of the landscape.

Besides metal roofs, white and gray paint, and white rock or brick fireplaces, all the houses at Big Sky will have porches or breezeways.

’”These days, you sell a house by the pound, so to speak.” Malin points out. “It’s living space you sell, and porches don’t count; rooms do. So you don’t see porches very much anymore.” The most practical idea for living in Texas, the feature that used to make it possible, isn’t good economics anymore: It costs almost as much to build a proper porch as to build a room. (How many porches do you see on those porticoed castles with eternal flame-framed doorways in Preston Hollow?)

Until it’s sold, the tri-partite Levy house is being used as the Big Sky marketing center, housing a collection of architects’ drawings that Malin hopes will help clients make the same imaginative leap that he has. The prairie is an inaccessible glory, one that many people consider “ugly.” Big Sky demands that you broaden your definition of beauty, that you embrace what you’ve been trying to escape, stop planting azaleas, and let the land be.

In some ways. Big Sky equals any other development-its enforced aesthetic is as discouraging of idiosyncrasy as any Fox & Jacobs house. Malin says he sold one lot to someone who insisted on a red brick house and had to sell out of Big Sky. There’s no room here for eccentricity, but there is room for variation. Fort Worth architects Mark Gunderson and Nick Glazbrook and Dallasite Lionel Morrison are currently designing their interpretations of a Big Sky house. Gunderson’s and Glazbrook’s houses are incremental houses-designed to start small and grow. Morrison’s design will be a complete house-like Levy’s, but unbuilt, a dream house the buyer could change before he built it.

The million-dollar question remains: Will Dallas buy soul instead of show?

Malin and his partners think so. Big Sky is not totally some idealistic, do-gooder, tree-hugger pipe dream; in fact, it’s just the opposite. Malin and his partners’ ambition is for the developmenttobeasprofitableasthe5-10acre ranchettes they originally planned for their prairie. In fact. Matin and Sloan are convinced that this kind of development will become more valuable than the standard ranchette development. Malin boasts that there is no minimum house size at Big Sky. No minimum house size? Seems like an odd sell point when Dallasites are busy building to the legal limit of their property. But it means mat the developers see Big Sky growing slowly, by settlement. It’s possible to buy your property and erect a small building, say, a studio or retreat, and then add on more rooms as you afford them or desire them.

It’s one way of trying to avoid the Seaside syndrome. Seaside, Fla., the perfect example of New Urbanism as conceived by its godfather, Andres Duany, started out as a mixed village–big houses, garage apartments, and cottages were all part of its design. New Urbanism demands a mix of size, style, and expense- the ideal is a ’textured community,” to use New Urban jargon. But the problem is, the formula works. Then Seaside became so charming and comfortable to live in that now there’s more demand than supply, and now no one can afford to live there. What price “texture”? Can you ever really “plan” community?

Big Sky is possibly a pie-in-the sky plan, delicately depending on the diminishing romantic sensibilities of the few homebuyers who see more beauty in a personal sauna than a sea of grass. On the other hand, Big Sky is a place where you can rum your back to the rest of the world.

Already, the lonely farm road is sprouting duck-and-cover-designed houses, suburban refugees waiting for the rest of the block to catch up with them. Over the rise of the hill, where the long view begins.


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