The Jewell Residence transforms the challenges of a small, wooded site into opportunities to create a unique spec home for the red-hot Austin real estate market.
Client Montebella Homes
Architect Workshop No. 5
Structural Engineer Arch Engineers
When architect Bhavani Singal, AIA, and her team at Workshop No. 5 first saw the overgrown South Austin site occupied by a cottage and a ramshackle cluster of adobe structures, it was hard to grasp its true potential. When the 50-ft-by-125-ft site was cleared and surveyed, the site’s limitations became clear: The narrow plot rose 11 feet from the front right corner to the left back corner, and three giant protected heritage trees as well as one protected live oak cut through the middle of the site.
Austin’s heritage tree ordinance, in place since 2010, is intended to preserve the city’s urban forest by protecting trees of a certain size from being cut down. With the tree canopy sheltering more than 30 percent of the city, storing some 100,000 tons of CO2 annually and reducing heat gain through shading and evapotranspiration, the ordinance has contributed significantly to preserving Austin’s greenness. All trees with a 19-inch or greater diameter are protected and require approval from the city to be removed, and those 24 inches or greater in diameter are considered “heritage” trees — they are unlikely to be approved for removal, requiring a variance and validation from the city’s arborist that they are either dead or terminally ill. Not only that, the tree’s critical root zone, which is calculated according to the tree’s size and can extend as far as a 40-ft perimeter, must be left 50 percent undisturbed.
Austin’s trees are holding their ground despite the never-ending influx of newcomers and the resulting calls for increased density. Architects doing business in the city have become adept at working both with and around the tree ordinance, but as buildable land within Austin dwindles, the challenges of designing in concert with these urban arbors is becoming more complicated.
Montebella Homes, the developer of this particular piece of land, knew it to be a challenging lot that required a creative solution. Singal and her team proposed an elegantly curved volume that dances among the trees’ trunks, branches, and canopy. The design process was a highly collaborative one by necessity. Meetings were conducted on the site, and measurements were precisely documented. “We needed every inch we could get to build a home that someone would feel comfortable living in,” Singal recalls. “We were fortunate that [the developer] knew the challenges and understood why the design was laid out the way it was.”
Deliberately unobtrusive from the street, the home is understated and respectful of the scale of its neighbors, which include the kind of eclectic mix of traditional and modern homes so often found in older Austin neighborhoods. While many new insertions into the neighborhood have ignored the current scale in favor building larger homes — often duplexes — Singal says it was important to design for the present and the future with equal sensitivity. “Keeping the front approach to the house at a scale that felt comfortable and accommodating to the neighborhood became the best feature of the house,” she says. Likewise, the decision to play with materials, such as the unassuming board and batten siding, helped to break up the mass and allow the home to reveal itself in surprising ways upon entry.
Public spaces are placed toward the street, with the private areas tucked into the back. The kitchen at the home’s center provides the transition between the two realms, which are connected by an arc in the narrow footprint. The house is pushed to one side of the lot to accommodate the trees’ root zones. This creates a shaded courtyard that is visible through floor-to-ceiling glass along the curved portion of the plan, which Singal says was inspired by the softness of the trees.
The tightly contained design’s unconventional footprint created opportunities for unexpected nooks and allows storage to be concealed in its walls, leaving the interiors streamlined and serene. The clean surfaces are animated by the constant play of light through the leaves and the movement of the sun over the course of the day. Indoor/outdoor living was always an important consideration, but once the foundation and framing were in place, it became clear that the elevation and added structure of a deck would have a detrimental effect on the scale of the courtyard. While the deck was omitted, a covered porch off the main bedroom creates a secluded outdoor space that frames the simple stillness of the low-intervention landscaping surrounding the trees.
The site’s slope did allow for some sectional variation from one end of the site to the other so that a carport at the street level connects to the house by means of a short run of stairs. A tucked-away mudroom at the foot of the stairs keeps everyday items organized and out of sight. The two-story volume accommodating additional bedrooms above the master suite was pushed to the back to further reduce its impact on the home’s scale.
In addition to guiding the overall plan of the home, the individual trees had idiosyncrasies that required accommodation as well: A notch in the roofline at the carport accommodates one massive branch, and the two-story wing was lowered into the grade to allow another branch to float unobstructed above.
As the board and batten exterior recedes into the shaded site, it is energized through the creative and varied spacing of the battens: Configured close together at the front entry, the battens gradually unfurl at the home’s middle before contracting again at the two-story volume, infusing the structure with a latent energy, like a slinky stretched out under the protective tree limbs. This subtly playful approach to using simple materials combined with a charmingly unorthodox design was a deliberate effort by Singal to demonstrate what is possible within the regulations and environmental considerations that will guide urban development in the years ahead.
Canan Yetmen, Hon. TxA, is a writer based in Austin.