• The 1,000-sf Holly ADU sits tucked away behind a non-descript house on an ever-changing block in East Austin. Photo by Leonid Furmansky.

Project Holly ADU, Austin
Client Eric Sherrill and Patrick Sherrill
Architect Davey McEathron Architecture
Design Team Davey McEathron, AIA; Elliott Peterson
Photographer Leonid Furmansky

East Austin’s Holly neighborhood, just south of Cesar Chavez and within walking distance of downtown, has undergone a stark transformation over the past 10 years. Once full of tiny bungalows, the neighborhood is now a mix of newly constructed duplexes and multifamily housing, tucked-away restaurants, and some tiny-bungalow holdouts that now share their lots with accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

In Austin parlance, an ADU is a back house, often two stories, which cannot exceed 1,100 sf in size, or 15 percent of lot size, which ever is smaller. Bound by various regulations, these structures are nevertheless a wildly popular way for homeowners to build an income property and for the city to increase density. Some are long-term rentals or mother-in-law suites, but many serve as Airbnb properties, especially during the height of Austin’s tourist seasons (SXSW in the spring; ACL in the fall).

Davey McEathron Architecture was hired to design one such structure for two brothers who wanted to be able to afford to live on the east side. The resulting backyard ADU serves alternately as the brothers’ home, as well as a short-term rental, and its thoughtful design and aesthetic set it apart from the dozen other similar structures visible from its second story patio. The new unit sits behind an unremarkable powder-blue house, not much different from the other original houses on the street. Granted, there aren’t many of those anymore. The street is increasingly made up of houses that range in style from contemporary to very contemporary — with varying degrees of success.

“We wrote a blog on ADUs,” McEathron says. “We like ADUs because they’re these tiny little jewel boxes you get to create — you can be kind of fun and adventurous.” The blog proved to be a success, boosting the firm’s SEO and bringing it a consistent stream of clients looking to get in on the action.

Composed of two volumes, shifted to make the best use of square footage and space, the Holly ADU is a charming mix of form and farmhouse. Clad in white siding, the structure’s gabled roofs are highlighted with cedar boards both inside and out. By shifting the second story, the architects created a covered entrance, as well as a second story balcony on top of the first-floor bedroom. The shift is the project’s aha! moment, taking the classic gabled shape from quotidian to fresh.

Inside, the material palette continues to take its cues from Austin’s endlessly popular modern farmhouse aesthetic. Concrete floors, shiplap walls, steel railings, and subway tile allow the space to read as both clean and well-designed, essential for the traveler choosing accommodations from among a series of bright, trendy pictures on the Internet. In the kitchen, the exterior’s cedar detail repeats, creating a feature wall that highlights soaring vaulted ceilings and floating open shelving. Instead of a dedicated dining space, a large island serves as both prep space and seating.

In order to fit two bedrooms and two bathrooms into a tight 1,000 sf, the architects relied on clever design solutions to keep the feeling of spaciousness. Since ADU projects are held to such strict size constraints, their design has more than its fair share of challenges. “There can’t be a hallway in an ADU, because then you’ve lost 30 to 50 sf,” McEathron says. For this particular project, the challenge of nearby power transmission lines meant that plans had to be redrawn to preserve the required setback. A protected-size pecan tree defines the other side of the lot, presenting another obstacle to work around. The edge of the floor slab on that side of the building had to be cantilevered so as not to impact the tree’s critical root zone. The project took advantage of every possible inch of space — and the tree shades a large patio, accessorized with string lights, that is accessed from sliding glass doors off the kitchen. Skylights and interior windows help maximize natural light. Built-in shelving under the stairway serves as TV storage and a feature wall. And what modern farmhouse would be complete without a barn door? This one was constructed by the owner himself.

The resulting structure is Instagram-ready, providing a taste of the Austin aesthetic to visitors and residents alike. And, in a time when social media can prove to be an architect’s best tool for being discovered by potential clients, it is sound business to embed photographable moments.

In the words of the project’s Airbnb listing, the modern farmhouse is “Minutes from Austin’s most renowned landmarks! A cozy, spacious, & eco-friendly home that brings relaxation to the heart of Austin’s excitement… Holly Dwelling will bring you peace, comfort, and charm throughout all your Austin ventures!” The steady stream of visitors since the home was completed three months ago agrees. “Eric’s place is pure Austin,” describes one visitor. “Stylish, modern, inviting. My room was airy and filled with light, cozy but felt spacious. My bathroom was amazing — could have come right out of a style magazine.”

It’s no small feat to build something that manages to capture the aura of a city and a neighborhood for out-of-towners within a slight footprint and a mere 1,000 sf. But Davey McEathron’s Holly ADU manages to be both of the moment and classic.

Alyssa Morris is web editor of Texas Architect.

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