A Sensitive Modern House in Austin, Texas

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By William Lamb
An Austin firm creates a home for a family in the Texas capital that sits among the trees.

Alterstudio Architecture designed this house in Austin, Texas, for a couple with two children who seized a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," as Kevin Alter, one of the firm's principals, puts it, to build their dream home.

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Alterstudio Architecture of Austin designed this house in the Texas capital for a young family of four.

"We spent lots of time with them, designing everything—and they wanted to know about every aspect of the building, including designing the interiors," says Alter, who also serves as the associate director of the Center for American Architecture and Design at the University of Texas at Austin. "As a consequence, the authorship is really in large part theirs, as they were heavily involved."

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The clients insisted that none of the trees on the property be disturbed, so Kevin Alter and his team at Alterstudio Architecture built a deck and an overhang around two of them.

Economic and ethical decisions drove many of the material and design choices. The house makes use of solar energy and has a geothermal heating system. It was built with cypress after the architects and clients briefly considered ipe. They ultimately reasoned that, though FSC-certified ipe was available, it didn’t make sense to import it "from a rainforest in Brazil," Alter says, "when we could get a local cypress that would also be resistant to the elements, even if it required staining."

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Another view of the deck.

The property had a collection of handsome, mature trees that the couple wanted to preserve, and in the end not a single one was felled. Pulling this off contributed to what is arguably the structure’s most distinctive feature—cutouts in an overhang through which the tops of two mature trees poke out.

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In consultation with the clients, Alterstudio opted to clad the house in local cypress rather than imported, FSC-certified ipe.

"To get close to the trees, we had to be very careful, particularly with the foundation, hand-digging around roots and occasionally spanning across roots rather than cutting them," Alter says. "But building in this manner, and having a building that is essentially one room wide with trees on either side, gives the impression of really living in the landscape."

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The interior combines modern and more traditional elements, such as this oriental rug.

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The cypress cladding carries over from the exterior to the interior of the house.

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Mark Word Design did the landscaping, with an emphasis on water conservation. "It's about usage levels, but it's also about the way we treat storm water and runoff since it all goes back into our supply at the end of the cycle," designer Sarah Carr says. Word and his team chose plants that help reduce erosion, require little watering, and allow storm water to percolate. Mulch and living ground covers—including Big Blue liriope, marsilea, and Palisades zoysia turf—keep moisture within the soil and lower the temperature of the soil, protecting the roots of the live oak trees.

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