An Austin bungalow renovation blends the old Texas dogtrot and the contemporary Texas air-conditioned box, with pleasing results.
Architect Charles Di Piazza Architecture
General Contractor 22 Construction
Landscape Architect Campbell Landscape Architecture
Structural Engineer Fort Structures
An eclectic array of old frame houses on small lots makes up the block of Rio Grande Street between 29th and 30th streets in Austin’s Heritage neighborhood. It has the look and feel of the quirky little college town that this city used to be. The midrise student housing blocks that have transformed West Campus just to the south have yet to dominate this area. Even the more nefarious stealth dorms that have infiltrated so many neighborhoods near the University of Texas are not to be seen here. It’s not luck that has preserved this block, but a brand of NIMBYism that has counterintuitively resulted in architectural patronage.
As detailed in “Campsite Rules” (TA March/April 2016), a wealthy individual, who wishes to remain anonymous, has been buying up properties in Heritage to keep them out of the hands of developers. Some of these properties have been transformed into architectural think pieces that owe nothing to the recommendations of real estate brokers. The
house detailed in the aforementioned article is one of them — a modernist jewel wrapped in weathering steel that could serve as a residence for visiting professors, an art gallery, or a posh space for intimate events. And now, directly across the street is another — a rehabilitated bungalow with a curious modern intervention.
Designed by Charles di Piazza, who was one of the architects credited with the previous house, the refreshed bungalow looks very much like the 1926 structure that it is, complete with chunky white trim and other gingerbread house details. However, in the center of each elevation is a generously proportioned rectangular cutout filled in with an unapologetically modern-looking glass door or window wall. These glazed apertures, which have black framing, correspond to wide cross-sectional hallways that divide the plan into four sections. “This was a complete gut renovation,” says di Piazza. “What we discovered when peeling back the layers is that the house had been added onto many times over its history, but that, originally, it was a dogtrot.”
In the days before air conditioning, the dogtrot was one type of habitation that made Texas’ outrageously hot summers more bearable. Temperatures in the central breezeway that defines the typology remain significantly cooler than those outside. The breezeway also helps ventilate the cabins that it separates, keeping them cooler than they might be otherwise.
In di Piazza’s version, the dogtrot is not just a means of cross ventilation, but also an organizing principal for the architecture. The breezeways, which are wide enough to accommodate program — an office, a dining area, etc. — also divide the space into four “cabins.” The two on the south side of the building are bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms. Of the two on the north, one is a kitchen and utility area, and the other a small living room that looks onto a sizeable front porch facing the street corner. From the breezeways, each cabin is wrapped in the same pine clapboard siding that clads the exterior of the house.
One of the quirks of the existing structure is that it has exceptionally high ceilings for a house of its era — 11 ft, 6 in. Di Piazza took advantage of this condition by using it to further distinguish breezeway from cabin with sectional variation. While the breezeway takes full advantage of the height, in the cabins the ceiling is dropped to 9 ft, 6 in, further reinforcing the cozier feeling of shelter within these spaces. Thresholds in the teak flooring, demarcated in black — the same as the thresholds that separate inside from outside — add another sign of difference. The ceiling in the breezeway is also teak, whereas, in the cabins, they’re drywall.
On the one hand, the combination of modern and vernacular expressions in this project seems particularly profane. Why not, for example, enclose the breezeways with period-sensitive glazing systems? But upon consideration, the choice of a modern expression here is completely appropriate for what this house is: a dogtrot with air conditioning. Di Piazza initially wanted these glazed apertures to be framed in steel with thin mullions — an aspiration that was soon value engineered out of the project. But the specification
instead of a wood system, capped on the exterior with black metal for weather protection, and painted black on the inside to resemble the exterior metal, is also perfect for the project. The meatier framing elements speak to the chunky white trim that the architect was content to draw into the project. “When designing a house on a tight budget, it’s important to concentrate on the essentials of the architectural idea so that intent and legibility are maintained in the final product,” di Piazza says. In other words, draw things that the contractors will be able to do well. The strategy paid off. While certainly not rarefied in any of its detailing or finish elements, the project has a crispness that’s evidence of everyone working well within their abilities.
Aaron Seward is editor of Texas Architect.