written by:
January 19, 2012

Architect J.C. Schmeil of Merzbau Design Collective recently completed this 4-bedroom, 4-bath house on Lake Austin in Texas, designed for a couple with three young children. "The design of the new residence resulted from a single, bold gesture: the bisection of the sloping site with a 14-foot high concrete retaining wall," says Schmeil. "The retaining wall appears as an interior finish on the ground floor, registering the passage of the day through a constant play of light and shadow."

Here's a view of the steel and glass master bedroom as it cantilevers over the patio and yard. You can see the cantilevered concrete patio in the foreground. The structure of the building is more common to commercial construction—steel framing with metal
Here's a view of the steel and glass master bedroom as it cantilevers over the patio and yard. You can see the cantilevered concrete patio in the foreground. The structure of the building is more common to commercial construction—steel framing with metal studs, storefront glass, and a concrete topping slab poured onto corrugated metal decking at the second floor. Photo by Brian Mihealsick.
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The cantilevered master bedroom appears to hover above the lake. Photo by Brian Mihealsick.
The cantilevered master bedroom appears to hover above the lake. Photo by Brian Mihealsick.
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This steel door opens onto a mudroom, accessed via a cantilevered concrete patio. Steel panels clad the building; they have been left to oxidize naturally, resulting in the "rusty" appearance of the house. Photo by J.C. Schmeil.
This steel door opens onto a mudroom, accessed via a cantilevered concrete patio. Steel panels clad the building; they have been left to oxidize naturally, resulting in the "rusty" appearance of the house. Photo by J.C. Schmeil.
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The house's main door is a pivoting thousand-pound piece of steel that opens with a push of a finger. You can see the recycled waste-concrete retaining wall through the glass, with Grandmother's Cabin visible at the top of the lot. Glass guardrail panels
The house's main door is a pivoting thousand-pound piece of steel that opens with a push of a finger. You can see the recycled waste-concrete retaining wall through the glass, with Grandmother's Cabin visible at the top of the lot. Glass guardrail panels in the foreground sit on the steel floor beam, which also serves as an ad-hoc message board with magnetic letters. Photo by J.C. Schmeil.
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The steel-framed stair with concrete treads and glass guardrail makes a nice perch for the family cat to take in views of the lake and check out what's cooking in the kitchen. Photo by J.C. Schmeil.
The steel-framed stair with concrete treads and glass guardrail makes a nice perch for the family cat to take in views of the lake and check out what's cooking in the kitchen. Photo by J.C. Schmeil.
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The kitchen is a double-height space at the core of the house, with views to the lake beyond. A long horizontal opening in the wall above the lacquered turquoise cabinets allows for views from the kids' play area. Photo by Brian Mihealsick.
The kitchen is a double-height space at the core of the house, with views to the lake beyond. A long horizontal opening in the wall above the lacquered turquoise cabinets allows for views from the kids' play area. Photo by Brian Mihealsick.
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Lacquered turquoise cabinets are topped by white quartzite countertops. Photo by Brian Mihealsick.
Lacquered turquoise cabinets are topped by white quartzite countertops. Photo by Brian Mihealsick.
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A zebrawood desk niche in the kitchen, under the steel stair landing, provides additional storage and display space. Photo by J.C. Schmeil.
A zebrawood desk niche in the kitchen, under the steel stair landing, provides additional storage and display space. Photo by J.C. Schmeil.
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A closer look at the zebrawood cabinetry at the kitchen island, with the concrete retaining wall visible to the left, with the dining and living area beyond. Photo by J.C. Schmeil.
A closer look at the zebrawood cabinetry at the kitchen island, with the concrete retaining wall visible to the left, with the dining and living area beyond. Photo by J.C. Schmeil.
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The concrete retaining wall at the back of the living room and dining area registers the passage of the day through a constantly changing play of light and shadow. Photo by J.C. Schmeil.
The concrete retaining wall at the back of the living room and dining area registers the passage of the day through a constantly changing play of light and shadow. Photo by J.C. Schmeil.
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The house is clad in weathering steel panels and has a strong sense of horizontality. Photo by Brian Mihealsick.
The house is clad in weathering steel panels and has a strong sense of horizontality. Photo by Brian Mihealsick.
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A steel grate catwalk off the master bedroom floats above the concrete patio, and the whole structure glows like a lantern at night. Photo by Brian Mihealsick.<br /><br /><p><em><strong>Don't miss a word of Dwell! Download our </strong></em><a href="http:
A steel grate catwalk off the master bedroom floats above the concrete patio, and the whole structure glows like a lantern at night. Photo by Brian Mihealsick.

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Here's a view of the steel and glass master bedroom as it cantilevers over the patio and yard. You can see the cantilevered concrete patio in the foreground. The structure of the building is more common to commercial construction—steel framing with metal
Here's a view of the steel and glass master bedroom as it cantilevers over the patio and yard. You can see the cantilevered concrete patio in the foreground. The structure of the building is more common to commercial construction—steel framing with metal studs, storefront glass, and a concrete topping slab poured onto corrugated metal decking at the second floor. Photo by Brian Mihealsick.

The lower level’s glass façade opens onto a terrace and views of the lake; oxidized steel panels clad the remainder of the building. The clients, Kanton and Piper Labaj, contracted the project and did much of the work themselves over the four-year construction process. The straightforward rectilinear plan was dictated by budget, and many details were worked out on site. Materials—scrap steel sections, waste concrete blocks, structural decking—were specified and sourced for economical construction; structural insulated panels and steel grating were internet finds.

"When Kanton told me that he planned to contract it himself, I was a little worried," admits Schmeil. "But based on the attention to detail and craftiness evident in his previous cottage remodel, I thought he might be able to pull it off. I should add that Kanton doesn't have any real construction experience; he's just one of those guys that decides what he wants to do and figures out how to do it."

Labaj did most of the initial site work himself, renting a bobcat to excavate and then contracting the pouring of a 14-foot-high concrete retaining wall that cuts across the slope. "I was amazed when I saw the completed wall—the careful joint placement and location of tie-rod holes resulted in a beautiful surface that now forms the entire interior back wall of the downstairs," says Schmeil. "As a fan of Tadao Ando's work, I was really impressed." Labaj also sourced some inexpensive concrete waste blocks (large concrete blocks that are remnants of industrial work) and used the bobcat to stack them into site walls. Concrete tire bumps (used in parking lots) form a wall at the driveway.

During the construction process, Labaj would call Schmeil to clarify a few points in the plans, but for the most part he just plowed ahead, finishing different aspects of the construction as he was able. Thanks to Schmeil's clever design and flexibility and Labaj's hands-on work, the family was able to move in during the summer of 2010.

Click through the slideshow for a virtual tour!

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