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."
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.