In a city known for its progressive politics and creative residents, the Bouldin Creek neighborhood in south Austin, Texas, may be the epicenter of the city’s bohemian personality. This is where artists, writers, photographers, designers, and musicians can still find places with decent rent without having to sacrifice the proximity to downtown’s galleries, shops, and coffee bars. It’s also one of the only centrally located neighborhoods left in town where an aspiring architect has the chance to find a vacant lot to build on, as well as open-minded individuals willing to experiment.
For Thomas Bercy (27) and Calvin Powei Chen (29), both just a few years out of the University of Texas architecture school, the neighborhood was exactly what they were looking for. With a downtown lot, not only would they be able to build the inaugural house in Austin for their design firm, Bercy Chen Studio, they would also be able to provide Bercy, his brother Yannick, and Yannick’s family a place to call home in an up-and-coming part of town. "Since my brother and I were both living in Austin, it was financially feasible for us to develop a property," says Bercy, who is Belgian and came to Texas with his family ten years ago. "And for Calvin and me, it was a starting point to get something built."
What they built is a beautiful combination of functional architecture and modern aesthetics that is as much a sculptural showcase as a functional home. Two steel-framed rectangular volumes—one has a single story and the other has two—stand parallel to each other, though they have been staggered to take full advantage of the narrow lot and to provide ample outdoor living space. The buildings are connected by a glass-walled hallway that bridges a reflecting pool and water garden and there is an abundance of over-sized sliding windows, doors, and glass panels to blur the line between the built environment and the natural one.
The elements that succeed the most in blending form with function are the acrylic panels used to create separate rooms at the core of each volume. Each of these rooms—one blue, the other red—houses a hot water heater, a heating and air-conditioning system, and a bathroom. At night, fluorescent lights installed behind the panels illuminate the rooms like inhabitable Dan Flavin sculptures. "I call these the organs of the house because they keep it running," says Bercy.
Work on the project started in 2000 when Bercy and Yannick, who works as a software engineer for Motorola, began searching for a lot in Bouldin Creek. After two years of near misses, they finally found the land they’d been looking for. By then Bercy had teamed with the Taiwanese-born Chen, who’d made his way to Austin via Australia.
From the beginning, the challenge for the design partners was to figure out a way to design a house for two different lifestyles—Thomas is single and Yannick is married with a two-year-old daughter. At first, the designers struggled with how to divide up the space inside a single structure; it wasn’t until Chen suggested two separate volumes that the design started to come to life. As Chen explains, "As soon as we started breaking down the volumes, we started getting the rooftops and the patios. It became a more engaging environment." It also af-forded the perfect solution to the Bercy brothers’ lifestyles. Yannick and his family would live in one rectangle, while Thomas would occupy the top floor of the other. The living room, kitchen, and dining room would be created as common areas.
During construction, Bercy and Chen used common materials but in uncommon ways. Inspiration for the retractable shade on the roof deck came from their interest in the primitive architecture of North Africa, where the Moors would drape canvas over their roofs to keep cool. The roof deck’s shade came from a local plant nursery. Cabinet-grade birch plywood was sealed and used for the interior walls and ceilings. The house also has several green features, like passive-solar siting, that prompted the city of Austin’s Green Building Program to award it a two-star rating (out of a possible five). "Because we’ve both lived in different places around the world, we don’t easily take things for granted or think a house is supposed to look a certain way or a material is supposed to be used in a certain way," explains Bercy.
That philosophy was sorely tested during the construction of the red and blue acrylic rooms. The designers first had to build separate steel frames for the walls and then figure out a way to attach the acrylic, which expands and contracts when temperatures fluctuate (they ended up using a double-sided construction tape). Meanwhile, before they could install the acrylic onto the steel walls, the material unexpectedly began to warp in the hot Texas sun. "When they were delivered they were perfect," laments Bercy. "Four days later, every sheet had enormous waves in it. We were still able to use them but our installation costs doubled."
In the end, the effort paid off. Commissions are starting to trickle in as neighbors and passersby stop by to check out Bouldin Creek’s newest showpiece. Bercy and Chen aren’t the first designers to make their mark in the neighborhood, but the locals know a good thing when they see it.
Sam Martin, a onetime editor at This Old House and Budget Living, is the author of How to Mow the Lawn: The Lost Art of Being a Man, published by Dutton.