Randy Brown draws a line in the sand for Nebraska architecture with his family's Brown House, a labor of love in Omaha
Randy Brown, FAIA, treats Nebraska architecture the same way Conor Oberst treats its music. Oberst, otherwise known as Bright Eyes, sings “No one ever plans to sleep out in the gutter/sometimes that’s just the most comfortable place” in his 2005 song “Road to Joy,” and you can’t help but sense the same theme of turning circumstance into opportunity, with a slight wink to its consequences, unfolding in Brown’s massive Omaha house perched among trees on a hilly 10-acre lot north of the city. You won’t see another house like this 12-gauge-hot-rolled-steel-clad landmark in Omaha—if not the state—guaranteed.
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Once you drive the gravel road to the back of the native prairie site, the main form of the house looms over you with what Brown calls the “big cube,” or “gallery,” which contains the living room in an oversize extruded steel tube, split in two, peeled back in some locations to reveal windows and punctured in others to allow new hallways to connect with an existing house. These few sweeping figural gestures announce the architect’s ambitions as clearly as anything: Here, architecture is a closed system of continuous materials and program for the architect to manipulate. A minimal set of materials—steel, drywall, conventional lumber, glass, plastic—and a conventional program (including four bedrooms, five bathrooms, a living room) freed Brown to make the new structure’s organization less cohesive, more improvisatory.
And so, beginning in 2003, he took his preparatory drawings and concocted the construction of his family’s house over three years. That ad hoc impulse also fed the summer work programs Brown has orchestrated since 1998 for architecture students from a handful of colleges. (Prior to this house, which he nicknamed LAB-or-a-t-ory, students contributed to his other Omaha projects.) Adventurous kids, receiving pay and academic credit, spent a few weeks each summer drawing before descending en masse on the house to experiment with designs and ultimately fabricate them. This breezy group effort—an alt-rock update on the Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesin camp—led to many happy discoveries, plus craftsmanship rivaling houses that cost much more than the $495,000 paid for this one of 5,100 square feet.
Randy Brown; Photo © Randy Brown Architects
“We redesigned every piece before we built it,” Brown says. “The building department didn’t look at the drawings, they looked at what was there.” So did Brown. When he bought the site in 1999, it came with an unexceptional two-story 1950s yellow ranch-style house that would suffice as a home for himself, his wife, and two young sons until he was ready to build the house he really wanted.
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