• The folded roof form of the Chertecho Tree Tower pops above the dense tree canopy of Texas Hill Country. - photo by Kurt Griesbach

A secluded retreat holds promises of reconnection to the austere beauty of the Hill Country.

Project Chertecho Tree Tower
Location Fredericksburg
Architect Dietert Design Studio
Design Team S. Brady Dietert, AIA
General Contractor FST Builders
Photographer Kurt Griesbach

Heading west out of San Antonio, Interstate 10 cuts through seemingly endless layers of chain stores, car dealerships, and cell phone towers: the same kind of anonymous development found at the fuzzy edges of any Texas city. But if you drive far enough into the Hill Country—and if you leave behind the 70-mile-per-hour sameness of the expressway—things begin to feel less familiar. Interspersed among the corrugated metal sheds of goat ranches and the elevated deer blinds of hunting leases, you begin to see artifacts of the region’s more distant past. A sturdy farmhouse alludes to the equally sturdy Germans who first settled the area in the mid-1800s. A low wall, built of stones cleared from the fields before they could be farmed, alludes to how difficult it once was to live in this place of profound but austere beauty. 

While driving on the smooth blacktop of a local road with at least three names, you pass Old Tunnel State Park, an abandoned railroad tunnel that some 3 million bats now call home. You then turn off onto a nondescript gravel drive, where the rough surface and tight curves require considerable focus. With your attention on the road, it then comes as a surprise when you suddenly find yourself at the base of the Chertecho Tree Tower. With a name that references both the local stone (a dark sedimentary rock known as flint, or chert) as well as the nearby colony of bats (whose nocturnal summer feedings are made possible through echolocation), this structure seeks to connect its occupants with the particularities of its environment.

The 40-foot-tall structure remains well hidden in part because it is surrounded by dense growths of live oak, cedar elm, and walnut trees. This wooded context helped generate the tower’s design, with its three levels creating three distinct spatial experiences. The lowest level contains the kitchen and living area, with an expansive corner window providing views through the hypostyle hall of trunks below the tree canopy. An exterior staircase of weathered steel leads to the second level, where a bedroom features a glazed corner identical to that of the floor below. This window feels more secluded, given its view into the canopy itself. From here, a second exterior stair ascends to the third level: an open-air deck with expansive views over the tree canopy and across the rolling topography of the Pedernales River Valley. 

The tower’s upper deck is capped by a folded roof of corrugated metal. The overhanging geometry provides protection from the intense Texas sun while preserving the distant view. This floating roof drains onto a larger, lower canopy that shades the windows of the second level and channels rainwater through its edge gutters into two large ground-level cisterns. The harvested water is then filtered to meet the drinking and cleaning needs of the occupants. 

This strategy of using a simple design solution to address multiple issues appears throughout the project. A ground-level wood stove sits within a brick alcove that extends up to the second floor to provide heat to both levels. The 18-gauge mild steel panels that clad the west-facing facade provide protection from the harsh afternoon sun while also serving as a screen for the projected shadows of the surrounding trees. A small deck outside the bedroom’s corner window shades the living room’s corresponding window on the floor below. 

The “hardness” of the weathered steel structure supporting the exterior decks and stairs both protects and contrasts with the “softness” of the wood cladding that defines the project’s central core. The cypress planks of this volume, which contains the kitchen and bathrooms, rise from the ground level to form the guardrail of the third-floor deck. The bed on the second level sits within a nook carved from this wooden core, providing a sense of refuge while still allowing an expansive view into the surrounding trees (none of which required removal for construction). 

The muted earth tones of the building’s exterior allow it to blend in with the mature trees that encircle it; similarly, the reflective galvanization of the roof blends with the sky above. This architectural camouflage blurs the outline of the building and breaks up its perceived mass. The result is a tower—a typology that should stand out in contrast to the landscape surrounding it—that instead blends seamlessly into its environment. 

Like the nearby nineteenth-century structures built by German settlers, the Chertecho Tree Tower represents a practical design solution to the problem of living on the frontier. Today, the issue is no longer how to survive in the often-hostile environment but how to live in harmony with and appreciate it, and the architecture of the tower encourages occupants to do just that. For example, because the amount of potable water is limited to what has been collected in the cisterns, occupants become aware of the importance of water conservation—and the length of their showers. 

Cell service is only available from the third-level deck, so visitors must intentionally climb there to update their social media feed. Of course, when they do arrive at the uppermost level clutching their smartphone, the view across the hills and valleys—as well as the erratic flight of a passing bat—will hopefully provide a much more compelling distraction than the one that brought them there.

Brantley Hightower, AIA, is the founding partner of HiWorks in San Antonio and the former interim editor of Texas Architect.

Leave a Comment