• The permeable massing and rhythmic street frontage is a pedestrian-friendly response to the existing neighborhood fabric. - photo by Casey Dunn

Next Door Creative Offices on Austin’s east side provides refined, loft-like workspace for artists, designers, and more.

Architect Pollen Architecture & Design
General Contractor Structura
Structural Engineer Architectural Engineers Collaborative
Civil Engineer Dunaway Associates
MEP AYS Engineering
Green Building Consultant Austin Energy Green Building
Landscape Architect Ten Eyck Landscape Architects

Elizabeth Alford, Assoc. AIA, and Michael Young, principals of Pollen Architecture in Austin, are used to being the developers of their own workspace. Young, a practicing artist for over three decades, recalls a time when securing an affordable studio along Austin’s notorious 6th Street was a realistic prospect, long before the revival of the street as a bacchanalian bar and nightclub scene. The subsequent downtown renaissance quickly priced them and other creatives out of the downtown studio space market.

Zoning laws laid down by the infamous 1928 Master Plan, which prohibited industrial building uses within Austin city limits, has meant that industrial building stock, repurposed by thriving creative communities in other cities, like New York’s Meatpacking District or Chicago’s Fulton River District, are simply nonexistent in Austin, leaving a gap in the market that requires creative architectural solutions.

After searching for an adequate and affordable space to house their practice, Alford and Young moved to East Austin in 2003; they found a concrete block building, previously home to a guitar store, and converted it into a studio and workshop. Its polycarbonate, light-filtering perimeter wall, filled with a gradient of sands from around the world, was itself an east side landmark for a time.

“One of the things that we really liked is that it felt a little ‘small town,’” says Alford. “There were old ladies hanging out on the porch that knew everything that was going on. We really liked that about the neighborhood.”

Over the next decade and a half, the pair acquired the four other lots on the block, enough to expand their studio into a 27,000-sf creative office campus, joining existing creative hubs like Springdale General and Canopy, built to serve as a home for Austin’s creative class. The newly constructed development provides small, medium, and large leasable units between 250 and 2,000 sf, complete with free bicycle share, lockers, and showers.

On the corner of 12th Street and Navasota, the new Pollen Architecture studio anchors a clustering of smartly clad metal and concrete buildings. The low-slung, linear volume manipulates light and mass with its razor-thin vertical fins cutting deep shadows across the face of adjacent, vertically striated concrete panels. Each 13-ft-tall concrete panel was precast using custom-cut Extira form liners fabricated by the architects and reused as a cladding material elsewhere once casting was complete. Too long for a standard CNC milling machine, each liner was hand routed on a custom jig to produce 18 unique patterns that, when arranged across the facade, generate a non-repeating composition, giving an artistic appearance to what is ordinarily a utilitarian material.

The heavy concrete is made to feel light. It is dematerialized by vertical striations that lend it a draped-curtain-like appearance, shifting throughout the day. The lack of consideration for illuminating this intricate surface using artificial lighting seems to be a missed opportunity, considering the massive effort involved in the fabrication of the panels and given the success of the application in raking natural light. The custom panels flank large bays of glass on both the north and south sides of the studios that provide views of a protected heritage oak tree and the shared courtyard beyond. Custom-built interior and exterior furniture continues the tradition of the “complete work of art.”

Regimented in Pollen’s collective gray material palette and their rhythmically repeating fenestration, the four low- to mid-rise buildings peer out into the largely residential neighborhood. Pedestrians are greeted by a frothy front garden even more generous than those belonging to the Craftsman-style bungalows across 12th Street. Taking advantage of the site’s 8 ft of naturally sloping grade, a series of terraced planting beds, filled with a variety of sand and soil, and planted with Texas native grasses, shrubs, and cacti, provides a soft buffer of privacy between the sidewalk and the front-porch-style entrances of the ground floor units. A burnt ochre-colored vestibule demarcates each entrance stoop, echoing the rhythm of the existing neighborhood fabric. Deep overhangs not only provide each unit with privacy, but also shade the expansive south-facing glass frontage from the afternoon sun.

Wrapping around all sides of the site, the gardens contribute to the general sense of tranquility and well-being. Designed by Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, they create a buffer between site parking and the units’ rear entrances, doubling as a clever water management strategy: The system of rain gardens collects rainwater runoff from roofs and hardscaping, retaining it before allowing it to percolate back into the ground. By implementing these and other passive building systems technologies, such as electric charging stations and improved thermal performance, the project earned a 4-star Austin Energy Green Building rating.

All four buildings were fully leased right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Even with current work-from-home policies in place, most tenants have continued to hold onto their units, and it’s not hard to see why they would want to. Accessed directly from an open-air walkway or via an exterior balcony and stair, without the need to go through an interior communal lobby space, units are permeated by light and air. Each is equipped with its own dedicated mechanical system, housed within mechanical rooms and the exposed steel truss structure of the lofted studio spaces. Operable windows with integrated bug screens provide ventilation across the shallow units, affording tenants full control over their indoor climate. A C-shaped core wall neatly conceals each unit’s storage space and shields the hall to a private kitchen and bathroom.

In addition to two artist studios, Next Door Creative Offices has become home to several design studios, including Lake|Flato Architects, Shademaker Studio, Studio Luck, Sam Birch, Asakura Robinson, BGK, and MakeATX, as well as software design companies. Once a sense of normalcy returns, the now-quiet communal terrace will be abuzz with lively conversation and the cross-pollination of creative industries. 

By becoming their own landlord, Alford and Young have staked a claim over their place in this part of Austin and escaped the fate of most eastside artists who, when faced with market forces and rising rents, have been forced to relocate yet again.

“There’s a spirit and authenticity of Austin,” Alford says. “We’re losing it every year, and the arts is a key part of that, and if there’s no space for artists to do their work, you’re really losing something that defines the character and culture of this city.”

Nkiru Gelles, Assoc. AIA, is a project designer at Michael Hsu Office of Architecture in Austin.

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