For several years now, real estate developers out for a quick buck have been buying up single-family and duplex homes in central Austin, demolishing them, and erecting code-compliant structures on the lots that look like big houses from the outside but are in fact apartment buildings housing as many as six un-related adults. Rooms in these cheaply made and unattractive structures go for around $1,000 per month, which, when all is tallied, amounts to a tidy profit for the slumlord. For neighbors, however, these Trojan Horses are real nuisances, creating parking, trash, and noise issues, not to mention corrupting the character and scale of their idyllic enclaves.
While public officials debate what to do about the citizen complaints that these so-called “stealth dorms” have invoked (City Council voted to temporarily reduce the number of unrelated adults who may live in a single dwelling unit from six to four in March 2014, a measure that is set to expire in March 2016), some homeowners have decided not to wait to see whether or not the government will take decisive action. One such person, a high-net-worth individual who wished to remain anonymous for this article, has been buying up homes in the Heritage neighborhood just north and west of the University of Texas with the goal of enforcing the campsite rule: leave it better than you found it.
One of her acquisitions is the property adjacent to Texas French Bread on Rio Grande Street — a through-lot like all the others on this single-loaded block that also open on Salado Street to the west. The previous owner was something of an eccentric who had made a number of alterations to the existing bungalow, including suturing an RV onto the back as an extension. He had also paved the yard almost entirely with concrete. Charles Di Piazza, AIA, and Chris Cobb, AIA, who the new owner hired to see about renovating the house, came to the conclusion that there wasn’t much to save. Instead, they convinced the client to build a new home on the site, a piece of modern architecture that would respond respectfully to the neighborhood in scale and massing while forming a close bond with the site’s main asset: a 44-in diameter, 350-year-old live oak tree.
“The client decided that as long as the bulk and massing stayed sympathetic to the neighborhood, she was comfortable with a contemporary treatment: flat roof, metal siding, spare interior — She was open to that, even though it was not in her go-to idea,” says Di Piazza, a UT Austin architecture professor, originally from France, who also got a bachelor’s degree in art as well as his M. Arch. there in the 1990s.
Di Piazza and Cobb went through an extensive design process in collaboration with the client, including building three physical models, before arriving at a scheme that all agreed was appropriate. Part of the challenge was that there was no clear program. The client wasn’t sure what she would do with the house once it was finished. “It’s very difficult to design without a specific program,” continues Di Piazza. “We created flexible space. It can be used as a two-bed, two-and-a-half-bath house, but the rooms allow for bigger congregations, the display of art, and there is an openness to the landscape. Early on, there was the idea that it could be used for Texas French Bread VIP events.”
Rio Grande House is a criticism, in a way, of the typical bungalow, which is dark on the interior. Here, Di Piazza and Cobb carved a courtyard into the face of the building to bring daylight to the center. The spaces flow around it in a U-shaped plan and, and as you approach the front entrance, which is also in the courtyard, you catch your first glimpse of the big live oak through the window walls that side the dining room.
The architects sought to establish a sense of movement in the interior by varying the ceiling heights. The guest suite, which is directly to the right of the entrance, has a 12-ft-high ceiling. The ceiling drops to 9 ft high through the corridor, living room, and dining room (all moving around the U plan) until it leaps up to 12 ft again in the kitchen. While it is spare and minimally detailed, Di Piazza and Cobb gave the interior a sense of warmth with white oak flooring and a Douglas fir ceiling. The master suite is on the second floor, and it opens to a roof deck, which is perhaps the best “room” in the house. Here, you are beneath the sheltering branches of the live oak: private and in touch with nature while remaining a step away from the comforts of inside living.
To get the building close enough to the tree to form this relationship (actually, there wasn’t room enough on the site to do anything but get close to the tree), the architects had to rely on some advanced structural engineering. The house is supported on a 9-in-thick steel-reinforced concrete structural slab that rests on 25-ft-deep piers. The shafts for the piers were excavated with an air spade to make sure that they did not impact on any critical roots. The corner beside the tree cantilevers nine feet from the last pier, a move made possible by a steel-braced frame that integrates with the primarily wood-framed structure.
The house is clad in weathering steel and the window punctures and decks with Ipe wood. (The purpose was to make the house recede into its surroundings as much as possible and, indeed, when I visited, having parked next door at Texas French Bread, I didn’t even notice it, even though the sightlines were completely open.) The one exception to this cladding is a stainless steel screen made up of diagonal rods that slides across the deck and dining room window wall. This screen was designed by local artist John Christensen. “There are so many hard lines in the house that the play of the diagonals creates a counterpoint, some relief,” says Cobb. “It references the nature of the tree, not in a direct way, but in recalling the foliage and the way light plays through foliage.”
Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.