Surrounded by San Antonio, Olmos Park is a ritzy enclave brimming with verdant greenery and distinctive architecture—like the circa-1920s and ’30s bungalows from prolific developer H.C. Thorman, the oil and real estate tycoon who founded the city. On a winding road here, San Antonio– and Austin–based Lake|Flato Architects conceived an urban house as a series of buildings that demarcate internal courtyards and elicit tranquility.
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Several "enormous, sculptural" live oak trees grace the grounds, says Laura Kaupp Jensen, associate at Lake|Flato Architects who served as project manager. Displaying these trees was just as important as showcasing the client’s motley stash of artwork and furniture. Lake|Flato chose one commanding oak as a centerpiece for the property to be sited around.
Constructing alongside those staggering trees on a three-fourth acre site was the architects’ biggest challenge. "We had an arborist involved from the beginning who helped us determine how close we could get and how to protect and work around the root zones," explains Kaupp Jensen. "We measured the branches to set roof heights. We also had clay soil, which typically requires a pier foundation, but we could not fit a drill rig on site without destroying the trees. We carefully over-excavated the footprint and replaced the clay soil with engineered fill, then poured a deeper, continuous concrete foundation so the house sits like a boat on the land."
With three neighbors in close proximity to the abode, Lake|Flato Architects wanted to conjure a space that felt private and larger than it was, says Kaupp Jensen. Since the east side of the lot opened up to a wooded area, the house’s footprint was pushed to the outer edges of the other three sides, forming a U-shaped garden wall that results in a breezy courtyard encompassing the trees, pool, and main living quarters. "The client loved old stone arches and Roman baths, so we aimed for a ‘modern ruin’ feel," Kaupp Jensen points out.
That living area is another design highlight—it's situated in a two-story floating steel-and-glass pavilion that is cut into the sloping hillside. Lightweight and transparent, it is an ethereal juxtaposition to the blocks of indigenous Sisterdale Limestone embedded with sea fossils.
Inside the kitchen, a barrel-vaulted ceiling is fashioned from structural concrete, and doors lead to another intimate courtyard. The bedrooms—set far back from the street and nestled into the upper level, closer to the curved branches of the mighty oak—are clad in copper and slatted wood.
Ultimately, the house focuses one's attention on the courtyard and trees, giving the impression that it belongs to a vaster landscape by blocking out the neighboring structures and the road, says Kaupp Jensen. She notes how it acts like a gallery, illuminating both the natural environment and the homeowner’s objects. The courtyard also provides a much-welcome functional bonus, she adds: "Lush, shaded spaces in the heat of a San Antonio summer are just about one of the most delightful experiences that you can have."
Listen to architect Steve Raike talk about the use of limestone in this home in our latest episode of Raw Materials 3 Ways: Clams.
Builder/General Contractor: Duecker Construction Company, Inc.
Structural Engineer: Datum Engineers
Civil Engineer: Pape-Dawson Engineers
Lighting Design: David Nelson & Associates
Cabinetry Design/Installation: Aris Designs, Inc.
Metalwork: Cactus Max Fine Metal Artwork
Art Consulting: Armstrong Art Consulting