•  Pine House shares massing and material types with its neighbors, and as a result does not immediately grab attention. - photo by Dror Baldinger, FAIA

Pine House in San Antonio is a model of affordable infill residential design and another case for the reintegration of design and construction. 

Architect Cotton Estes Architect
Client Tony and Sonya Castro
General Contractor Long House Builders
Structural Engineer Spaulding Structural Engineering

Dignowity Hill sits on the near east side of San Antonio. Named after the prominent Czech physician who first settled the area, the neighborhood was home to many of the city’s leading professionals and merchants in the middle of the 19th century. The exclusivity of the area began to change in the 1870s after the construction of a Southern Pacific Railroad line began to encourage industrial development. The completion of Interstate 37 in the 1960s further marginalized the neighborhood. 

And yet the neighborhood endured. 

By the turn of the 21st century, the desirability of living close to downtown had increased to the point that many of San Antonio’s older neighborhoods — including Dignowity Hill — began to be “rediscovered” as desirable places to live.

Located just a mile east of the Alamo, the Pine House sits in the heart of Dignowity Hill on a narrow, 45-ft lot. Driving down Pine Street, the house does not immediately grab attention. It shares massing and material types with its neighbors and sits back behind a sizable Chinese tallow tree. But upon closer inspection, subtle details and asymmetrical window placements reveal this to be a thoughtful, modern addition to the fabric of Dignowity Hill.

The house consists of two 16-ft-wide extruded gable volumes shifted in plan relative to each other. This subtle move defines a public entry court in the front and a more private outdoor living court in the back. A small front porch leads to a central, glazed entry foyer that acts as a transition between the house’s public and private wings. 

To the north, the single-story gable volume contains the more public spaces of the house. The large, open space accommodates kitchen, dining, and living room functions. A series of south-facing sliding glass doors open directly upon the rear deck. A wood trellis works with two existing pecan trees to provide this shaded outdoor extension of the living room. 

On the other side of the entry, the two-story gable volume contains an art room and master bedroom on the lower level, and two additional bedrooms on the upper floor. The organization of the plan is efficient, with benches and built-in desks ensuring every corner of the house’s 1,890 sf is rendered useful. Because of the relatively small footprint of the house, every bedroom has windows on at least two sides.

Respecting a limited budget — the house cost around $370,000 — the design accomplishes a lot with a little. Each design decision serves multiple ends. The massing of the home, for example, spatially defines the front and rear courtyards, but it also gives the house a favorable solar and wind orientation. The vertical lines of the house’s exterior may at first appear to simply echo the materiality of neighboring homes, but the siding, too, does more. The cladding is inverted board-and-batten, which, in addition to providing a playful variation on wood siding found elsewhere in the neighborhood, provides improved ventilation for the building’s envelope system. 

The Pine House is full of these types of moves: affordable but durable materials combined in thoughtful ways to create something extraordinary. This is fitting in that the house itself came together under extraordinary circumstances. Although it is not uncommon for an architect and contractor to work together during the design of a project, it is unusual for the architect and contractor to live together during that process. The architect, Cotton Estes, AIA, and the contractor, Mike Long, are domestic partners, and this project represented their first opportunity to work together professionally. 

“We commonly found ourselves sketching details over breakfast, and constantly thinking of ways to improve on the design,” Estes says. The relationship also inverted the often-adversarial relationship between architect and contractor. “As life partners, we were both rooting for each other to achieve the best house possible.” 

This type of close working relationship also existed with the clients, who happened to be living next door to the site while the house was under construction. According to Estes, this worked to the project’s advantage. “With the clients constantly visiting the construction, it was a lot of fun to witness their growing understanding and excitement as the house took physical form,” she says. “By working as a team, I think Mike and I were better able to support the clients, explain the process, and work through problems before they arose.”

By witnessing the process of construction directly, the clients came to appreciate the result all the more. The most noticeable change from their old Victorian house to their current one is the amount of light the house invites inside. “I told Cotton, I want it to feel like I’m living outside in a treehouse,” says Sonya Castro. “It’s just so calming. It’s very open. We have a lot of natural light.”

Her husband, Tony Castro, agrees: “We have so much light — the whole wall of windows in the living room … In the morning, it’s awesome. In the evening, it’s awesome. It’s such a melding of the two areas — outdoors and indoors — that I couldn’t imagine not having that now.”

By committing to do more with less and working closely as a team, the owners, architect, and contractor were able to create a type of infill development that should serve as a model for others in San Antonio and beyond. A well-designed house has the power to improve lives even when the world outside is less than ideal.

Because of San Antonio’s stay-at-home order, instituted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Castro family has been spending even more time inside their new home in the last few months. They are grateful to have such an uplifting house in which to live.

“Can you imagine being quarantined in our old house?” Tony asked his wife. “I think we are very lucky to be living here.”

Brantley Hightower, AIA, is the founding partner of HiWorks in San Antonio and the author of “The Courthouses of Central Texas.”

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