Heart of Gold and Pine
An architectural designer and an artist harnessed the collective power of their design firm to remake a dilapidated mid-century gem into a hillside perch for their family.
Native Texans and married designers Elizabeth Alford and Michael Young came home to roost ten years ago, when they ditched big-city life in New York for a ranch house in Austin. The home, originally built by architect Jonathan Bowman in 1957, sits in a landscape of limestone cliffs in the Balcones fault zone, the geographical boundary between the prairie lands that extend all the way to the Gulf of Mexico and the rolling, agriculture-rich Hill Country.
Though little remains of the old structure besides the limestone foundations and fireplace column beside the outdoor patio, the surviving open-air stair tower hints at the house’s unusual past. From the carport below, visitors travel underneath the main volume of the house, then enter the stair tower and exit one floor up, with views down the hill, across a tree canopy, and over a lush ravine. Alford and Young added 1,000 square feet and, most importantly, linked the interior and exterior worlds through their choice of local materials, like the aggregate speckled throughout the concrete floors that was dredged from the bottom of the Trinity River and the East Texas yellow pine that covers much of the walls, doors, ceilings, and floors. The traditional material was brought up to date with quarter-sawn boards that were cut to expose a pattern of fine horizontal lines from the floor to the ceiling.
“We’re very interested in where stuff comes from,” says Young, a visual artist who frequently incorporates sand and soil into his art, as seen in the large-scale piece that hangs in the dining area. Young describes them as “a family of makers,” where each member—including 13-year-old James and 11-year-old Clara—has allotted space. Command central is the family room’s work table, where James’s unfinished blimp sits next to a scroll of Greek symbols that Clara painted with watercolors. On the other side of the wall, Young and Alford’s office is lined with Homasote fiberboard on which he can post sketches.
Vintage furniture hits the sweet spot between aesthetics and responsible consumerism. (“One of our definitions of sustainable,” says Young, “is that it’s well built.”) The modular Dieter Rams 620 Chair Programme, which dates to the 1960s, occupies prime real estate in the living room. Sporadic bursts of color—a safety-orange Kvadrat rug in the family room, grassy green tile from Bisazza in the master bathroom, and a lighter, celery green for the custom kitchen cabinets—complement the warmth of the pine walls. And many of the beds, desks, drawers, shelves, and cabinets are built-ins designed specifically for the house. One notable exception is an heirloom chest of drawers that, as Alford family legend has it, was buried during the Civil War to protect the silverware from pillagers.
It isn’t always easy for the couple to be architects as well as inhabitants. “You make mistakes,” Alford says. “You can take bigger risks than with clients.” They notice the smallest flaws that they are just itching to fix, but at some point (especially when the kids are begging to install a basketball hoop on wheels), you have to stop working and start living.