I enjoy designing appropriately-sized homes in East Austin where I live—it’s an opportunity to create infill projects that add new vitality to our neighborhoods while respecting the people, history and scale of the surrounding homes. Often, however, there are particular challenges to East Austin. Soil conditions are difficult, lots are at times irregularly shaped or unusually small, and of course, City zoning and building ordinances restricting the size and shapes of homes must be followed. On the other hand, many of these sites—especially in the Holly Street area—have wonderful specimens of heritage trees, whose trunks easily outstrip the minimum 19″ diameter of the Austin Heritage Tree preservation ordinance. These trees are a valuable asset, and ordinance or not must be allowed to live and thrive. But designing around them can also be a challenge. It isn’t enough to protect the trunk and canopy; foundations must avoid intruding into the so-called half critical root zone.
In the case of this project being built by Newcastle Homes, a majestic 42″ diameter pecan sits near the side property line, and its half critical root zone pinches the maximum width of the house near the tree to about 15′. Moreover, the orientation of the lot creates a broad sun exposure for the east and west façades of the house, which would create a lot of heat gain in the summer. Our solution was to organize the 1-storey house as an “L” with an elongated stem. The “base” of the “L” was turned 90° to the lot’s orientation, maximizing desirable southern and northern windows and minimizing east and west walls in the living room and kitchen. By placing the media wall to the west, we also could reduce the amount of glass on that harshest of sides. By turning the roof into a series of parallel ridges running east and west, we could maximize solar-ready roofs.
The long stem of the house—bedrooms and a generous gallery—were given angled walls with large glass sliding doors such that the east of the house was faceted around the lot’s huge pecan. What might have been a design drawback suddenly became the central focus for indoor and outdoor living. This is a critical lesson we strive to apply in all of our projects together: when the design-build team works together in the spirit of turning challenges into opportunities, the resulting outcome can exceed our expectations. Constraints aren’t just inconveniences to be worked around, they are the starting point of better design. If it weren’t for the constraints of the site, I’m confident the house would not have turned out as well as it did.