written by:
photos by:
March 29, 2013
Originally published in Indoor Outdoor
as
Living Edge
On Austin’s outskirts, where urban, industrial, and rural collide, lawyer and science-fiction author Chris Brown’s bunker-style home redefines modern city living.
Modern glass house in Texas with living roof
Edgeland House, built on a cliff-top lot in Austin by architect Thomas Bercy for lawyer and writer Chris Brown, is topped by a living roof to help it blend into the landscape. The concrete, steel, and glass house is divided into two distinct public and private halves.
Photo by 
1 / 9
Outdoor pathway
The land is adjacent to the Colorado River, along which Brown and his girlfriend, Agustina Rodriguez, walk their dogs.
Photo by 
2 / 9
Modern living room with Living Divani sofa
Rodriguez, a designer and architect who runs the studio Agi Miagi, created the pendant lamp and terrariums in the dining area. The space is open to the living area, where Brown’s son, Hugo, sits on a Living Divani sofa. The countertop-table is by Bercy Chen Studio.
Photo by 
3 / 9
Modern outdoor pool with furniture
Ryan Anderson of RAD Furniture designed the stools as well as the table and benches on the pool deck.
Photo by 
4 / 9
Modern living green roof by Ecosystem Design Group
Brown and his dog Katsu head to the river; the path was once a dumping ground on top of a long-defunct underground oil pipeline. The land required a complicated excavation process, offering an opportunity for Bercy to partially bury the house. The green roof was conceptualized by John Hart Asher of the Ecosystem Design Group at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.
Photo by 
5 / 9
Modern bedroom with fabricated stairs
Like the pavilion holding the public spaces, the structure containing the bedrooms is clad in glass on the interior sides facing the courtyard, allowing a constant connection to the outside. Rodriguez (with dog Lupe) designed the steel stairs leading from the mezzanine-level home office to the master bedroom below. The stairs were fabricated by Austin-based Steel House MFG.
Photo by 
6 / 9
Living green roof stairway with native grasses
Native grasses spill forth from the green roof toward a stairway leading to the main level.
Photo by 
7 / 9
Modern living room with Jens Risom side chair
A Jens Risom side chair centers the living room, which looks across the courtyard to the bedroom pavilion.
Photo by 
8 / 9
Modern Austin home with living roof
The floor plan reflects the way in which the design's angles interact with the site.
Photo by 
9 / 9
Modern glass house in Texas with living roof
Edgeland House, built on a cliff-top lot in Austin by architect Thomas Bercy for lawyer and writer Chris Brown, is topped by a living roof to help it blend into the landscape. The concrete, steel, and glass house is divided into two distinct public and private halves.
Project 
Edgeland House
Architect 

When Chris Brown needs to think, he grabs his canoe. For the past decade, the lawyer by day, science-fiction writer by night has found peace paddling down a stretch of the Colorado River that snakes through Austin. The Zen-like effect comes not only from the swooping egrets, osprey, and herons that patrol the waterway but also from the geographic history of the area—an industrial-meets-urban edgeland once home to the city dump, the cattle-driving Chisholm Trail, and a B-52 bomber base. “I found it to be a pretty transcendent experience that changed the way I think about the environment in which I live,” Brown says. 

One afternoon, while searching for more access points to the river, Brown discovered a path that led down to hundreds of cliff swallows and their mud nests under a highway bridge that spanned the water. He became hooked on the idea of building a house that interpreted the intersection of animal habitat and industrial wasteland. “Something about that idea of wild nature adapted to the structure moved me,” he says.

Modern living green roof by Ecosystem Design Group
Brown and his dog Katsu head to the river; the path was once a dumping ground on top of a long-defunct underground oil pipeline. The land required a complicated excavation process, offering an opportunity for Bercy to partially bury the house. The green roof was conceptualized by John Hart Asher of the Ecosystem Design Group at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.

So, in 2009, newly divorced and living in a downtown Austin apartment, Brown bought an empty lot on a bluff adjacent to the Colorado. If he wanted a piece of gritty history, he now had it. Unfortunately, it came with heaps of cement, rebar, and debris that had been dumped by construction crews and a decommissioned oil pipeline from the 1920s wending through the ground beneath the property.

“It’s the type of project only a lawyer would do,” Brown says of the mind-draining task of working with a global oil company and the permitting arm of the city of Austin to remove the pipeline, lift the easement, retain liability, and do testing to confirm that the ground was clean.

But there was a silver lining. Because digging up the pipeline created a massive hole, architect Thomas Bercy, of the Austin-based firm Bercy Chen Studio, whom Brown had met through a friend, proposed burying the house partially underground. He envisioned a modern design that nodded to the construction of ancient pit houses—mud-and-grass huts half-buried in the earth by the Plains Indians that once inhabited the area. “We had a hunch that, because of his sci-fi writing and background, Chris would want something more forward-looking,” says Bercy.

Modern bedroom with fabricated stairs
Like the pavilion holding the public spaces, the structure containing the bedrooms is clad in glass on the interior sides facing the courtyard, allowing a constant connection to the outside. Rodriguez (with dog Lupe) designed the steel stairs leading from the mezzanine-level home office to the master bedroom below. The stairs were fabricated by Austin-based Steel House MFG.

Bercy updated the idea with a concrete foundation, a structural steel frame, and glass walls that look toward a rift that divides the house into two parts. One side contains the kitchen, dining, and living room spaces, while the other side contains two bedrooms and a writer’s loft. Brown shares the space with his girlfriend, Agustina Rodriguez, an architect and designer, and his 18-year-old son, Hugo Nakashima-Brown.

Furnishings in the space are of two categories: “Stuff we had before we moved here and white cabinetry from Ikea,” Brown says. He didn’t want any wood in the house, as a matter of personal preference, but some did make its way inside in the form of modern backless stools by local furniture builder Ryan Anderson. The stools provide seating for a large, custom, bent-steel counter surface in the kitchen.  

There are also little treasures throughout the house—“Easter eggs,” Brown calls them—found on the property or during walks in the woods out back: Heart-shaped rocks, brightly colored feathers, a bird skeleton, turn-of-the-century glass medicine bottles, and pieces of teacups can be found in the bathroom, in clay pots, or in terrariums that Rodriguez made.

Not that anyone passing by would notice any of this. Few people even realize there’s a house there at all: Tucked beneath a grassy roof covered by nearly 200 species of plants and grasses, the structure is virtually invisible from the nearby street. In fact, the 1,400-square-foot house is so well hidden in the earth that it doesn’t seem to register on the radar of local wildlife either.

Modern living room with Jens Risom side chair
A Jens Risom side chair centers the living room, which looks across the courtyard to the bedroom pavilion.

Birds, butterflies, bees, dragonflies, hawks, snakes, lizards, and frogs all treat the house like just another grassy knoll. This nature show is visible from nearly every room in the house through the glass-and-steel walls that look toward the rift. “We move between rooms and treat the natural environment around us as a very big part of our home—as our living room,” Brown says. “The sensation when you sit in here and look up is like Avatar—everything buzzing and flying.”

But covering the highly geometric roof with all that greenery was a big challenge for Bercy, who had to incorporate anti-erosion mats in the design in order to hold the soil in place and support the hundreds of plants, which are watered by a drip irrigation system. “It was a way of healing the site’s industrial past,” says Bercy. “The green roof became about restoring the prairie, which created this whole ecosystem. So now the house is alive.”

The forward-thinking approach paid off in efficiency, too: Nine inches of soil work wonders on reducing energy bills, especially when coupled with a radiant cooling and heating system and an energy-exchange method that makes the house “60 to 70 percent more efficient than other houses in Austin, Texas, and even the USA,” according to Bercy.

And, as a constant reminder of where everything began, those cliff swallows from the nearby bridge arrive at dusk and dawn every day, flying in remarkable “bombing patterns, eating all the flying bugs,” Brown says. The whole experience has been eye-opening; he’s come to realize that “you don’t have to go to a park to be in nature—it’s right here in the middle of the city, under the freeway, seen from your living room; if you can learn to perceive it.”

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016
distant structure lakeside prefab norway facade stones green roof
Dwell has traveled all over the world, from Tasmania to Indonesia, to report on modern houses.
February 05, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment master bedroom atrium
Get ready for a weekend of rest with these sleepy, little cocoons.
February 05, 2016
lamp show 99 cent plus gallery 0
At Brooklyn's 99¢ Plus gallery, 30 artists and designers re-imagine the lamp in an illuminating light show.
February 04, 2016
Hidden storage stairwell with raw brass hardware
Having ample space to stow items is a daily struggle—peep these modern homes for some ideas on maximizing your square footage.
February 04, 2016
modern fairhaven beach house blackbutt eucalyptus living room Patricia Urquiola sofa
Whether it's along a coast in Australia or the French Alps, wood provides a natural touch in these interiors.
February 04, 2016
Glass and steel sculpture in Printemps store of Paris.
In the Paris' venerable Printemps department store, two Toronto-based firms were tasked with enlivening a new atrium and creating a unique experience for visitors. YabuPushelberg, partnering with UUfie, designed this stunning steel "sail" embedded with vibrant dichroic glass.
February 04, 2016
Monochromatic Master Bedroom in Copenhagen Townhouse
Whether it's to maximize limited light or create a soothing interior, these five projects go white in a big way.
February 04, 2016
EQ3 Assembly quilt by Kenneth LaVallee
The new Assembly collection from EQ3 celebrates up-and-coming figures in Canadian design. Discover this newly appointed class, which debuted at Toronto's Interior Design Show, here.
February 03, 2016
The Greenhouses of Half Moon Bay
Each week, we tap into Dwell's Instagram community to bring you the most viral design and architecture shots of the week.
February 03, 2016
Deck of Australian addition to Edwardian home.
A 1,500-square-foot home in Melbourne welcomes a modern black and white kitchen, dining, and living area.
February 03, 2016
open plan concrete home in japan
Embracing the organic, imperfect material, these raw concrete surfaces are a step up from exposed brick.
February 03, 2016
Renovated DC Row House loft space with Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair.
The classic designer's signature and comfortable forms continue to be popular in homes today.
February 03, 2016
Zinc-roofed cabin France.
An architect builds an energy-efficient home near one of France’s most popular pilgrimage sites.
February 03, 2016
1973 Palm Springs home
Made for casual design enthusiasts and Palm Springs connoisseurs alike, Unseen Midcentury Desert Modern offers a peek into 51 buildings—some not open to the public—in that Southern California mecca of modernism. Begun in 2008 by photographer Dan Chavkin, the book is set for release this February 9th and will be available on Amazon and at multiple venues of Modernism Week in Palm Springs, February 11 - 21. Here we preview some of its images.
February 03, 2016
Millennial concept home with an outdoor living area
A concept home aims to reflect the requests of the Millennial market.
February 03, 2016
The two twelve-by-sixteen-foot bedrooms, directly above a comparable pair on the first floor, feature a glass transom that follows the pitch of the roof. “The stair and railings were very simple,” Depardon observes. “We added a bit of design, with panels
Skylights needn't be simple overhead daylighting; sometimes they can truly define a room.
February 03, 2016
Modern small space Rhode Island cottage with landscaping and cedar cladding
Surrounded by nature, these cottages are tranquil retreats from the city.
February 03, 2016
The couple kept original touches, including the arch.
Historic archways belie these contemporary homes with physical reminders of each structure's storied past.
February 03, 2016
modern guesthouse in norway with angular facade and cutaway patio with spruce cladding and ikea chair
These houses make room for nature, not the other way around.
February 02, 2016
Modern kitchen with yellow sectioned walls and monochrome appliances
Whether it's a splash of color or bold strokes, this collection of interiors brightens up these homes.
February 02, 2016
Rust-washed concrete wall in Moscow apartment renovation.
This 590-square-foot apartment was stripped down to admit sunlight and dramatically reveal forgotten surfaces.
February 02, 2016
Nendo's collection of objects inspired by Star Wars
In a galaxy not so far away, Japanese studio Nendo has released a versatile collection of objects inspired by classic Star Wars characters.
February 02, 2016
Monti catered to his mother’s love of cooking by giving her ample storage areas along the 70-foot long walnut wall-slash-cabinet. The refrigerator, kitchen items and other goods easily disappear into the wall when not in use. The nonporous, stain-, scratc
Sometimes the earthy colors and vivid grain of a wood like walnut is all you need to make a space.
February 02, 2016
renovated modern home in Austin interior kitchen
From California to Connecticut, these midcentury interiors still shine through thanks to the careful attention of architects and residents alike.
February 02, 2016
Outdoor dining area at a Saigon home.
A city home honors the local culture with communal outdoor space and reclaimed materials.
February 02, 2016