• A cutout on the first floor creates a covered porch. Here the fiber cement siding gives way to handmade Mexican brick. Photo by Leonid Furmansky.

Project The Elephant House, Austin
Client Sean and Cybil Guess
Architect Faye and Walker Architecture
Design Team Sean Guess, AIA
Photographer Leonid Furmansky

Love the one you’re with,” says Sean Guess, AIA, echoing a line from Steven Stills’ anthem from the ’60s. Guess is referring to the flooring on the upper two levels of the house he designed for himself and his family. It’s an engineered wood system whose oak veneer is so thin it can’t be sanded and refinished without exposing the MDF substrate. To have used a product that would allow such refurbishment, the sort he might spec for a well-heeled client, would have broken his budget. He’s stuck with the veneer, unless there comes a future when he’s flush enough that he can afford to rip it out and replace it wholesale, an eventuality the architect does not anticipate any time soon.

Guess bought the lot on which the house sits in 2011. For two years, he had been looking for something as close to central Austin as his $50,000 budget would allow. That wound up being in this as-yet thinly developed corner of Montopolis, at the bitter end of East Austin, right where Montopolis Drive merges into highly trafficked Highway 183. It happens to be closer to the airport than to downtown. Austin’s real estate market being what it is, if he were looking at the same piece of land today, it would be well out of his price range.

Rough though it may be, the site has a lot to recommend it. It’s on a bluff above the Colorado River, with almost direct access to the hike-and-bike trails of the river’s greenway, which connects to downtown a mere four miles away. The bars and restaurants of East Austin are within a few minutes’ drive, as is the aforementioned airport. And from the new house’s third floor, looking west above the treetops, there is a fine view of the
city skyline.

Guess started his own practice, Faye and Walker Architecture, in 2008. It consists of himself and, sometimes, when he needs it, an intern. Previous to going it alone he designed high-end homes for Ryan Street & Associates, where he was an associate. “I still feel like an associate,” Guess says. Before moving into the house he designed, which is also his studio, he officed in a 30-sf nook under the stair in the condo he and his family occupied on South Congress.

At roughly 3,000 sf, the house has a simple form — a rectangular box topped by a pitched roof. Guess set a construction budget goal of $150-per-sf, a figure that did not include a builder’s fee. He did the construction administration himself, and managed to squeak the project through just under budget.

The main driving factor of the design was the exterior siding — in Guess’ words, “my complete obsession with wanting to use it.” It’s a corrugated fiber cement product from Denmark, which is most typically employed on the roofs of industrial and agricultural structures in Europe, but the company did have details for vertical siding installation. Guess selected what he wanted from the catalog and modified it to fit his needs.

“Once I found that material, it became about utilizing it in an elegant way that took advantage of its inherent qualities,” Guess says. “Then, it was just the fun of detailing edge conditions and window and door openings. The surrounds I made to capture the siding itself was designed to be an exterior corner board, but I took those and ripped them down on one side and created an L-piece that gets installed around every door and window. Otherwise, my windows and doors wouldn’t project beyond the face of the structure.”

One important aspect, for Guess, was not to have any corner trim. To accomplish this, he took advantage of the siding’s corrugations, orienting them vertically and rolling them over each other, allowing the undulating geometry to turn the corner. This simple move makes the building feel solid and monolithic, as opposed to resembling an assemblage of flimsy fields taped together at the corners.

The look of the fiber cement material — which is gray in color and sort of wrinkly when you examine it up close — along with the building’s ungainly, lumbering geometry, inspired its name: Elephant House.

On the ground floor, Guess carved out an entry nook and covered porch. In this recessed area, the cladding material changes from the corrugated fiber cement panel to a tan colored, handmade Mexican brick. The change in material was meant to express the notion that in “cutting” through the skin, into the building, an inner reality is revealed: the pulpy insides of the elephant.

The interiors are open, clean, simple, and composed of just a few materials: plywood, gypsum, and a concrete floor on the first level, which transitions on the upper levels to the engineered oak veneer product mentioned previously. The ground floor has a mudroom and a large kitchen/dining/living area that flows along the length of the house, carried by a long built-in banquet, around the vertical circulation core, to the family room, where a picture window presents a view of the traffic streaming on 183. On the second story are the two children’s bedrooms and the master suite, all of which feature Luis Barragán-inspired window shutters. The third story houses the office and a flex space that is primarily used as the children’s playroom. In accordance with local FAR requirements, this floor could not add any mass to the building, and so it has no walls — the pitched roof beams bear directly on the second floor trusses. It’s a glorified attic, and Guess employed some fairly complex calculations to ensure that the head height averaged 7 ft.

As in so many projects, the architect really had fun with the stair. In this case, the interplay between form and materials — gypsum and plywood — is elevated to the level of poetry. As with the exterior cement-fiber/brick interaction, here a thin, grainy plywood membrane is “pierced,” revealing the smooth, white gypsum interior. The intersection between the two materials at corners is particularly well handled: The plywood turns the corner, exposing its edge grain, and the gypsum finishes flush against it without any trim.

Throughout the interior, Guess used an exterior-grade plywood from Chile that has almost no pitting in the glue between the plies, making for a smooth, clean edge that stands up as a finish. In certain places, the plywood surfaces intersect with the ventilation system. Not wanting to apply standard registers to the plywood, and not really needing directional diffusers in these areas, the architect instead drilled holes directly in the material. “It speaks to the ethos of the house,” Guess says. “There’s a different way to do this, and we have everything on hand to do it: a drill and some plywood. We accomplish the function, but simplify and edit any additional sort of thing we would put up there.”

Maybe it’s not for everyone, this living on the edge of a gentrifying neighborhood next to a busy highway, but Guess embraces the location. “In my mind, I felt like I would take any leftover piece of property that 95 percent of people would think of as not desirable,” he says. And he had reasons for thinking this, other projects that inspired him: Rick and Cindy Black’s house on a thin sliver of land in north Austin; Ronnie Self’s house in Houston, perched above the freeway with its superb skyline view. The point is that good architecture can make even an ugly site an appealing place to be.

Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.

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