• Taking advantage of the site’s steep slope, the second story entrance floor is a piano nobile with high ceilings and axial views. Photo by Casey Dunn.

Project Casa de las Lomas, West Lake Hills
Owners Jason and Emma Andrew
Architects Michael G. Imber, Architects
Design Team Sally Joachim, AIA; Greg Smith, AIA; Michael G. Imber, FAIA
Photographers Casey Dunn, Jon McDonald, Michael G. Imber

Nestled into the side of a hill and buried deep within an upscale, sprawling, and generally uninteresting suburban Austin neighborhood lies Casa de las Lomas, a showstopper of a home, at once exotic and profoundly Texan.

Its architect, Michael G. Imber, FAIA, is visiting the residence for the first time since its completion in 2008, and as he begins the tour, his pride is nearly as palpable as the blanket of muggy humidity that is typical of the city in late summer. “This limestone was hand carved in Florence,” he says with a glint in his eye as he gestures to an ornate tympanum over the front door. “Florence, Texas,” he adds after a beat.

The door itself is from Guatemala, set within a dark cedar panel and styled after the elaborate zaguán entry passages of colonial Spain and Latin America. The inset block grille above it came from India. The roof tiles are antique — sourced from the south of France — and carefully arranged, the assortment of earthy red pastels complementing the deep blues and greens of the surrounding Texas landscape. A setback concrete dome, clad in colorful ceramic tiles from Portland, peeks out from certain vantage points — a Moorish flourish that plays well alongside the traditional Spanish details that adorn the property.

And then there’s the stone, perhaps the defining feature of a home with an abundance of defining features. Five different Texas quarries provided as many types of rough-hewn sandstone, limestone, and schist that aggregate between deliberately varied grout thicknesses. The resulting tapestry of stonework accomplishes an expressiveness, texture, and depth that invoke the romance of traditional craftsmanship as much as the heritage of its locality.

In this way, the masonry itself serves as a metaphor for the project as a whole. A home like this doesn’t happen by accident, or — at just shy of $1,000 per sf — inexpensively. It takes a small army of local artisans, a design team with capability and vision, and a client who sees value not only in the aesthetics of the built work, but also in the patronage of craftsmen who devote a lifetime to their trade.

On this topic, Imber is quick to wax poetic: “People often don’t realize how lucky they are to have these craftsmen work on their homes. A guy coming onto the project will work on a handrail, and when he goes home he dreams about it. It’s his life. When he walks away from the project, he’s left a part of his spirit, and that stays for generations. To me, as an architect, that’s thrilling. Sometimes clients don’t appreciate it because they only see the cost. You’ve got to say to them, ‘Hey, you’re paying for spirit, buddy!’”

This commitment to craft has obvious implications for Imber’s design process. With respect to the stonework, in particular, the desired look begins with precedent imagery before moving toward sourcing samples, often from multiple quarries at once. Special attention is paid to the grout, which can either set each stone off individually or unify the palette as a whole. For this project, Imber called for a larger-gauge aggregate than is typical, in order to achieve a textured appearance that lends itself to a robust and rustic character. Eventually, a full-scale mock-up is constructed and, once approved, religiously referenced by the mason’s crews. Daily supervision is required to ensure that the design intent is carefully met, and stonework that veers too close to formal over vernacular is demolished and rebuilt.

Stepping inside the home, visitors are immediately greeted by a wall fountain that meets the floor, a gesture inspired by the client’s interest in the principles of feng shui. As the sound of dancing water reverberates up the immaculate plaster walls and around the foyer, the addition of yet another cultural reference that might otherwise seem disparate feels decidedly in step within the eclectic, traditional charm of the residence.

From here, guests have a choice: Pivot to the right and find a cozy, vaulted music room anchored by a handsome stone fireplace; or turn left and peer through a series of four axially aligned, chamfered portals leading through the heart of the home — a generous living space, a kitchen with an island the size of some dinner tables, and an adjacent, airy octagonal dining room. Natural light spills into each well-proportioned space from multiple sources. “Human beings are like moths,” Imber quips; “we’re drawn to the light.”

Moving along the main axis affords guests a wonderful discovery: an unobstructed view of the lush Texas hillside and, in the distance, a clump of tiny skyscrapers locating downtown Austin. The unexpected revelation that the entrance floor is actually a piano nobile is especially gratifying when considered within the context of the project’s careful siting.

Embedding the home into the existing hillside not only allows for unobstructed first-floor views, but the grade change accommodates a sunken courtyard that is flanked by two double-height, splayed arms — each wing of the residence — angled to maximize exposure to prevailing breezes. A modestly sized pool placed at the center of the outdoor area makes the space a natural gathering spot, and sitting poolside feels surprisingly intimate, as the home seems to embrace the plaza.

Glancing upward, the rear facade is every bit as interesting as the home’s presence from the street. Varying the size and position of openings introduces a layer of controlled disorder that obscures the location of floor levels and rejects notions of standardization and predictability. There is a whimsical, mysterious, and downright enjoyable quality to scanning the building without being quite certain where each of the spaces within begins and ends.

A grand, outdoor stair bookends the north side of the courtyard, leading to a loggia that rests above a wing of bedrooms. Justifying the stair to the courtyard, rather than to the loggia, allows it to peel away from the canted wing of the home. This, in turn, creates a small side courtyard in the interstitial space. The simple gesture introduces another subtle element of complexity into the plan, hinting at a layering of spaces that never fully reveal themselves from any single vantage point.

The stair is one of three in the project, each distinct and integral to the experience of moving throughout the home, according to Imber: “A staircase isn’t just a staircase; it’s a way to interact with the architecture. You’re climbing up and through it. You’re feeling the hand of the plasterer against your own, the stroke of the ironsmith as you hold the rail.”

The ironwork, mainly thin handrails painstakingly shaped from long sections of one-inch-square stock, is also featured prominently in the mezzanine level of the double-height, domed library.

Every step through the home affords new discoveries of details that radiate with the spirit of their creators. Dazzling stained glass, myriad custom light fixtures, hardware from tradesmen near and far, bright ceramic tiles inlaid within the face of each stair riser, and more — all combine to produce a symphony that ebbs and flows as composed by an architect charged by a patron with vision.

“I firmly believe that design doesn’t stop on paper,” Imber asserts as he steps out the front door and back into the soggy Texas afternoon. “There is both what the material wants to be and the hand and heart of the craftsman who shapes it. We must turn the project over to those, at a certain point.” He pauses before concluding: “That is what makes it human. That’s what makes it real.”

Christopher Ferguson, Assoc. AIA, is a designer at Clickspring Design and co-founder of DO.GROUP DESIGN.

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