Clients’ Corner: Gilson Riecken on his Alamo Heights Home

Gilson Riecken sits on the front porch of Hacienda Ja Ja, his Lake|Flato-designed home in Alamo Heights. – photo by Frank Ooms​

San Antonio attorney Gilson Riecken is a unique client: He practiced architecture and city planning in Texas for 17 years before becoming an attorney and developing a legal practice focused on design and construction litigation. When Riecken and his partner, Emily Sano, an independent art curator, decided to build a home in Alamo Heights just north of downtown San Antonio, they called Lake|Flato’s Tenna Florian, AIA. Hacienda Ja Ja was completed in May 2010 and is a 2,260-sf three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom house in Alamo Heights. Designed to fit within 30 existing live oak trees, the house both respects and embraces the landscape.

Riecken and Florian recently spoke to Catherine Gavin, editor of Texas Architect, about the LEED Platinum-certified house. 

Can you briefly describe the state of the property when you purchased the house?

The trees were the reason we bought the property. When we purchased it, it had five structures on it. They were all of varying heights, constructed during different periods, and in general disrepair. The trees had literally taken over the all the unbuilt property. An 18-ft tree had grown up in front of one house, pushing the porch up and blocking the front door, while a 38-ft tree had pushed the kitchen off its foundation. The structural integrity of all but one of the buildings had been compromised. The Alamo Heights Architectural Review Board agreed that the trees were more significant than the four buildings and unanimously approved the demolition, and the city approved new construction and setback variances in large part because of how well Lake|Flato’s design preserved the trees.

Hacienda Ja Ja was designed to fit within 30 existing live oak trees – photo by Frank Ooms​

When did you decide to engage an architect?

From the moment we started looking at the property, we had Tenna involved. I have strong personal ties to Lake|Flato and have always admired their work. It was important to us that we work with someone who understood who we are as people and how we live. Fortunately, we already had that built into our friendship with Tenna.

How did you all work together during the design process?

The design process was very fluid. We were living in California during the design and construction, and we even went to Europe for three months during critical design development work. We had a few conferences in Texas but mostly communicated with Tenna via Skype and email. She regularly sent us drawings to review.

What elements of the design reflect Lake|Flato’s understanding of your personalities?

The kitchen and dedicated office are all Emily. Emily wanted her own “suite” within the larger house, and she wanted the ability to throw a dinner party without the guests converging on her in the kitchen work space. Tenna created a subtle separation between the dining area and kitchen, as well as separate social and working spaces within the kitchen, both of which have worked out well.

The home features a subtle separation between the dining room and kitchen. – photo by Ryann Ford

In addition, a second “kitchen office” and half-bathroom in the corridor from the kitchen to garage complete her suite. For me, one comment from Tenna that highlighted the depth of her understanding of who we are and how we live occurred when she told me why she had located the study door where she had: my desk needed to stay outside of the sightlines in the primary corridor. As she explained, “I know what your desk looks like.” Needless to say, you do not see my desk from the corridor — even with the 4-ft door fully open. 

We also wanted natural light and ample space for displaying art. Lake|Flato’s one-room-deep houses and use of porches and atria lend themselves to ample natural light and cross ventilation. Our house has all of this. It is essentially two wings — public and private sections — separated by an entry and interior courtyard that bring daylight into the middle of the house.

Daylight and space for displaying art were very important to the homeowners. Lake|Flato's trademark one-room-deep design provides abundant natural light. – photo by Frank Ooms

The public and private wings of the home are separated by the entry and an interior courtyard. – photo by Frank Ooms

We are particularly happy with how the home fits into the site. Tenna went to great lengths to protect the trees. One corner of the house cantilevers more than eight feet to avoid interfering with a tree next to the northwest corner of the master bath. And the concrete pile that supports one corner of the porch is a feat of architectural engineering gymnastics that avoids all of the roots of the largest oak on the site.

Florian's porch design skillfully avoided all the roots of the largest oak. – photo by Frank Ooms

What Emily and I didn’t realize was how much we would enjoy the way breezes and light pass through our home. From our bed, we can see the first rays of shimmering morning light on the trees, which turn everything golden. And in the evening, our rooms glow golden again. Tenna placed the windows perfectly so that most rooms capture the changing light for us to enjoy throughout the day.  

Tell me a little bit about the sustainable features of the house.

The house reached net-zero status in 2012, which we never expected. We had planned to cover approximately 90 percent of the energy bills through the combined efforts of smart site orientation, strategic overhangs, rainwater collection, multi-zoned HVAC systems, daylighting, and solar panels. Details like the motorized clerestory windows and shades make it easy to live sustainably in the house. We also installed an energy monitor to measure the performance of the house. Although we did that to allow Lake|Flato to learn from a post-occupancy evaluation, it has proved invaluable to us as a tool, allowing us to understand how our behaviors impact energy consumption, and even to discover and correct problems — like a blown fuse in the solar inverter — long before we might have otherwise noticed anything. 

This post is online content for the May/June 2014 issue of Texas Architect.