House on a Hill

Planted among the live oak trees atop the crest of a hill in West Austin, the Lake View Residence affords a sweeping view of the Bright Leaf Preserve to the west, while, to the east, enduring tree canopies shield the 5,900-sf home from the road. The immediate perception of seclusion from the surrounding neighborhood emanates from the design team’s careful attention to the quality and character of the outdoor spaces as much as the indoor ones. The layout is rich and complex, while adhering to, as designer Kevin Alter modestly describes it, a simple one­-room-wide plan.

The particulars of the design — developed by Alter; Ernesto Cragnolino, AIA; and Tim Whitehill, Assoc. AIA — seek to address the current and future needs of a young family as well as the site’s idiosyncratic character and history. To emphasize specific framed views and to punctuate an arrival sequence, the architects molded the residence to conform to a relatively traditional courtyard layout. Indoor and outdoor public spaces are flanked with bedrooms to the north and a guesthouse to the south. A serendipitous site circumstance, meanwhile, allowed Alter and team to devise a plan that seamlessly intertwines the built and natural: The foundation boundaries of a demolished house on the site provided a road map for establishing a tree­-to-house relationship not possible under current building codes. In one location, the architects were able to slide a stone-and-glass wall within a few feet of a 17-inch-diameter live oak tree. A long, planar wall casually leads the eye along its surface, allowing a brief pause at the magnificent tree before finally arriving at an elegantly-framed view of the preserve beyond. The tree becomes a perfect comma in the charming story of the entry sequence to the house, where a cantilevered concrete slab and hidden steel lintel carry the hefty load of the stone wall, windows, and roof above. Here, we begin to understand the architectural thesis governing the design of the structure: If the cantilevered wall detail more clearly (and more arrogantly) asserted its presence, attention would be pulled toward the highlighted details. Instead, the architects deftly position each architectural element to establish a more profound and even extraordinary relationship of spatial harmony, a mutual resonance between the natural and the man-­made.

Entering the site, visitors are greeted with a meandering stone pathway that gracefully slivers through a beautifully curated, Mark Word­-designed landscape. The front door refuses to reveal itself. Without this point of termination, visitors feel encouraged to slow their pace and consider the curious, cypress-clad forms deposited about the landscape and held together by the conspicuous but slender horizontality of the roof fascia. The delicate scale and uninterrupted character of the steel fascia are essential points of visual reference, providing a strong mechanized juxtaposition to the surrounding oak trees and gentler curves of the wood-clad forms of the house. The pure and slight nature of the fascia is achieved through the use of an inverted steel channel held away from the much-thicker structure of 

the roof in order to allow space for a hidden system of gutters and downspouts.

In the front courtyard, heavy limestone walls reach up to meet a line of clerestory windows that buffer a physical connection to the fascia, thus reinforcing its conceptual importance and allowing for an exquisitely uninterrupted ceiling plane that passes from outside in, and back out again. The stone and glass walls are uncomplicated, in the best sense of the word, a handsomely arranged system of vertical planes assigned the arduous task of elegantly but effectively allowing (or disallowing) natural light and views of the space inside and out. In direct opposition to the consistent nature of the fascia, a stucco, stone, and glass palate forms the gesturally calibrated, telluric wood volumes of the house: Its striated cypress skin, a sterling example of formal expression married with functional logic, is reminiscent of tree bark, and serves to integrate the structure, large though it is, with the surrounding grove of live oaks. 

To achieve the desired scale, materiality, and response to light and shadow, the design team conceptualized a vertically oriented wood facade; employing an affordable custom-milled knife blade to prevent costs from spiraling out of control. This innovation allowed them to craft a wood profile that was not only intriguing, but that could also be easily deployed on an undulating surface. The unique, striated wood facade (which runs along the straight) consists of 2 x 6 cypress boards, milled and equipped with a tongue-and-groove profile to be easily blind­nailed to the wall, not unlike a traditional wood flooring installation. Around the curve, the wood facade is composed of 2 x 2 cypress boards, milled and installed in a similar fashion.

Inside the house and not far from the entry is a small, dynamic table designed for the house by Alterstudio and built by Mark Macek of Macek Furniture Company. Embedded in the vividly patterned and monolithic slab of its russet walnut tabletop is evidence of a curious incident. A slice runs through the grain; one side of the patterning is rotated almost 90 degrees from its neighbor. This extraordinary detail, which shaped the design, likely stemmed from a particular moment in the life of the tree when one species (English walnut) was grafted to another (claro walnut).

So different in scale from the house in which it sits, the table echoes the Lake View Residence in other, deeper ways: Both works, large and small, find and express the beauty of fortunate circumstances, infusing subtle artistry into structures built for the family whose everyday needs they serve.

Joel Nolan, AIA, is an architect at Austin-based Moontower Design Build. 

Originally published in the July/August 2015 issue of Texas Architect magazine.