• The expansive western glass provides unobstructed views to and from Lavaca Street. Photo by Casey Dunn.

When their longtime home became unavailable, Alterstudio, an award-winning Austin-based architecture firm founded in 2005, looked to purchase a space within the urban core where they could invest long-term. Entering into the unique situation of architect as client, they set out to create a calming, collaborative environment reflective of their firm’s culture and values. As founding principal and UT Austin Professor Kevin Alter, Assoc. AIA, describes, “We believe good spaces elevate our daily lives.”

Alterstudio’s three principals Ernesto Cragnolino, FAIA, Tim Whitehill, and Alter were uniquely positioned to apply their design approach — “generous space-making, shrewd manipulation of daylighting, and meticulous attention to detail” — within the firm’s new space. Appreciating the opportunity to push against existing conditions, Alterstudio purchased two adjacent offices totaling 1,500 sf of space within the base of Cambridge Tower, a rare-for-Austin residential and commercial condominium built in 1964 that is nestled between the State of Texas complex and UT Austin’s 40 acres.

Looking past the dated interior of the previous owners, the designers recognized the beauty and potential of the structure to create an open scheme with ample natural light for their staff of 11 and visiting clients. At the start, the designers removed the applied materials and unneeded walls to reveal the rough, yet beautiful concrete shell. Taking advantage of the existing floor-to-ceiling glazing on the west and south, they pushed the service spaces and infrastructure against the interior edge to create a continuous workspace 25 ft wide with unobstructed views and high ceilings. The considered placement of open workstations with a conference table and couch area fosters collaboration and dialogue within the space.

The delicate balance of materials and carefully considered detailing creates an environment that is easy to occupy and appreciate. White oak partitions, flooring, and screens bring a warmth to the space, while contrasting the concrete’s patina with new steel elements. The multitasking yet minimal partitions with integrated pin-up surfaces, shelving, and other storage form a small copy room and conference room for privacy and masking. A Tectum panel ceiling with custom connectors remains continuous, as the partitions are pulled away from the ceiling plane to allow light to permeate throughout. A small entry space is screened from the work area and bleeds into an open kitchen — a space paramount for staff — that incorporates crisp cabinetry to hide the fridge and other necessities from view.

The result is a thoughtful composition that pays homage to the midcentury tower they inhabit while introducing a fresh material palette and careful detailing to make the space their own. “One of the nicest compliments we receive about our work is that it seems obvious, but I never would have thought of it,” says Alter. Alterstudio has surely achieved this sense of being, having designed a space with great richness and depth for both the occasional visitor and daily inhabitant.

Sarah Gamble, AIA, is co-founder of GO collaborative and a lecturer at the UT Austin School of Architecture.

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