Cover Story: This House in Austin Has a Tree Growing Right Through It
During their 15 years of marriage, Chris and Julie Hill have lived in many homes, most of them large and traditional. But it wasn’t until after they retired and changed cities that they found a house that challenged their architectural worldview.
Chris used to work a fast-paced job in the investment world. In 2011, he and Julie, who’d worked in the criminal justice system, were living in a 9,000-square-foot stucco home in Houston. Yet it was at their weekend lake house near Austin that they felt truly at ease. And as Chris puts it, "Driving from Austin back to Houston on Sundays got old, so we decided to make the lifestyle change and move here."
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They settled in the lake house provisionally, but with two school-age kids in tow, they wanted to eventually find a place in a good school district. While driving through blocks of Spanish-style colonials in Westlake Hills, Julie happened upon something unusual—a modern, glass-walled gem for sale. "It was different from anything in the neighborhood," she recalls. They toured the property, and although they didn’t buy, it planted a seed in their heads for what their next home could be: bright, airy, and suffused with nature. A little research revealed that a local firm, Alterstudio Architecture, had designed it.
"It was subtle from the outside and gave a great sense of privacy amid a fairly dense collection of suburban houses," says principal designer Kevin Alter of the project in Westlake Hills.
A few years later, when the Hills purchased a poorly built home at the end of a pitched, dead-end street in the Rolling Hills West area, they knew exactly whom to see about it. "They had the ambition to build something that we would be really proud of," says Alter. "It was a fabulous and daunting requirement from a client."
Everyone agreed that the house itself wasn’t worth saving, but its steep lot with a wet-weather creek in back and adjoining plot of undeveloped city-owned land provided a rural idyll right in the middle of Austin. The flat-roofed, glass-centric structure that Alter and his partners, Ernesto Cragnolino and Tim Whitehill, created takes the site’s natural splendor and, through architectural sleight of hand, enhances it.
The 3,600-square-foot house assumes something of an H-shape, with a garage, kitchen, and living/dining area connected to a sleeping wing by a glass hall. But its meandering Western red cedar roof, which curves from 4 to 48 feet beyond certain walls, disguises its true form, making it look more like a C from above.
Entering the property through a metal fence built by Chris, who taught himself to weld for the project, the two wings of the home appear to reach outward, as if to embrace visitors. Next to the pivoting steel front door, a 200-year-old oak emerges through a deck and stretches its branches through an ovoid hole in the overhanging roof, which swerves to avoid a second oak nearby. "The trees are large enough to be considered ‘heritage trees’ in the City of Austin, but we had a lot of leeway because the house isn’t technically in the city," Alter notes. "That said, incorporating them into our design was an opportunity to make the house that much better."
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"The house is designed to accentuate the beauty of the tree and be a datum against which the natural surroundings are measured." - Kevin Alter, designer
The interior is as much a machine-à-habiter as it is a gallery for the residents’ collection of nearly two dozen paintings and sculptures by artists such as Donald Baechler and John Chamberlain. The art played an integral part in the design, with each piece assigned a dedicated wall before the house was even finished.
In the living area, floor-to-ceiling windows connect the home to the front yard. Thanks to the grade of the lot, similar windows in the rear provide views into the treetops. Just outside, the roof shades a gracious outdoor area, with another gaping aperture above the pool. "The opening substantially increases the natural light in the middle of the building," says Alter. "It’s sublime when it rains."
Chris was intimately involved in the construction and acted as the general contractor, something his background in finance didn’t quite prepare him for. But what he lacked in hardhat experience, he made up for with his self-described "type-A" personality and eye for detail. Alter might have hesitated to work so closely with a client if he hadn’t already gotten to know Chris. "When I first met him he was restoring an old Land Rover," the designer recalls. "I could tell he takes incredible pride in his work."
The project was a two-year endeavor, during which Chris learned to perform a variety of jobs, sometimes through trial and error. The limestone blocks of the fireplace are so uniform because he spent weekends with the kids sorting through all the stones and then sanded them to a smooth finish; when he noticed the alignment of the ceiling beams was off by a few inches, he and the subcontractors tore them down and started over.
The house represents a major shift for the Hills. On paper, it’s less than half the size of many places in which they’ve lived, but if you asked them, they’d say it feels bigger. According to Julie, "Once you have a house with this much glass, it would be hard to ever go back to anything else."