Invisible Aquatics

The Cascading Creek House sits at the end of a cul-de-sac with its eponymous waterway beyond. Standing at the top of the sloped site, Thomas Bercy of Bercy Chen Studio explained that because of its steep topography, the triangular property receives a great deal of runoff. This water is channeled through large drains in the curvy driveway and along a rocky passage on the north side of the house. Even in its site strategy, the project uses water management to explore the relationship between tech-nology and architecture. 

The house, opening to the south, consists of two bars set at an angle to each other with a deck and pool in the trapezoidal expanse between. Descending the steps at the property’s entry, the experience of the house begins with the structure’s paired roofs. They are painted a battleship gray, the color of the steel throughout the project. The northern roof deposits rainwater into a central trough, which is concealed by a line of solar ther-mal assemblies and culminates in a gigantic scupper that feeds an open cistern. According to Bercy, the visual and sonic impact of the dripping water creates an “Alhambra-esque atmosphere.” If there is no rain, the scupper can be run artificially as a fountain. The southern roof supports catchment and an array of flat photovoltaic panels. These technical systems are pres-ent but suppressed, tightly integrated into the aesthetics of the house. 

Past the water feature and garage door, steps lead down again to the custom onyx front door. Inside, the view opens onto the deck and the wings of the house. A Death Star-like grey cylinder hides a coat closet and provides air supply and return vents above. There are four expressed structural tubes in the project. An additional fifth tube is absent but still powerful, figuratively slicing through the entry roof to create an oculus that allows sunlight onto the stained ipe wall. 

The architects envisioned the project less as a house and more as an extension and outgrowth of the limestone and aquifers of Central Texas. Lueders limestone, consistent in its honeyed tone, is readily available locally and fits within the aquatic subtext of the house. The two wings of the house are each spined by a limestone wall, and the floors throughout the public spaces and hallways are limestone. Whereas the roof line is a constant datum, the interior floors step down with the grade, culminating in tall, glass-encased spaces. A floor datum of limestone is also maintained, which suggests moving down into the metaphorical stone base of the house. 

Public spaces are located in the northern wing, with a combined kitchen, dining, and living area that spills down toward the creek. In the kitchen, the appliances are integrated into the white oak cabinetry. A stair leads to a subterranean “man cave,” complete with a wine cellar, home theater, and small gym. Along the outer wall of the living area, the roof is divorced from the limestone wall, allowing a line of clerestory windows that indirectly washes the wall in light. 

The culminating overhanging roof is thin, the result of the use of steel tube laid on its longer side and additional support from tensioned cables that run back to a large steel column. This steel tube is a major structural element but, in continuation of the house’s theme of uniting systems and aesthetics, it contains an additional column within that leaves enough space to house a fireplace. From the living room, the tube is massive but useful. Seen from above, it awkwardly punctures the plane of the roof; however, the scale works from the pool deck, where the illusion of the floating ceiling is preserved.

Bedrooms are located in the western wing of the house. Particular care was taken with the visual alignments between the two parts of the resi-dence. The play area between the two children’s bedrooms, for example, opens onto the deck, allowing a parent in the living room to easily glance across the courtyard to check on the kids. A pocket courtyard separates the master suite from the kids’ rooms and provides a meditative setting for the master bathroom. The master bedroom is supported by a large millwork closet installation and, finally, opens out onto the descending lawn. 

The house itself is impressive for its luxurious dimensions and attention to detail. While the principal construction was handled by Spencer Construc-tion, Bercy Chen’s team completed important feature items such as the specialty doors, steel window frames, deck, pool, and custom sustainable systems. What is most interesting is the tight coordination of the various systems in support of the lifestyle that the house invites, as seen in the two wall-recessed iPads that control 

the temperature, lighting, music, and water features throughout the project. The relationship of technology to architecture is an ongoing interest for the office of Bercy Chen, but this project was taken even further by the client, who is fascinated with systems. Bercy recalls, “He pushed us to get more energy-efficient and to integrate technology into the house.”

The most impressive technological feature of the house is its water processing loop, which is the hidden pearl of the building. Rainwater is collected on the roofs and runs into the cistern before being stored in a 30,000-gallon tank buried on the west side of the site. The water is filtered and then circulated in the pool. Ingeniously, the pool is used as a massive heat sink, with a heat pump that translates the water’s thermal properties into energy used to heat or cool the air inside the house. This water, once its thermal capacity is delivered, is then cycled back into the system. The same water is also used to irrigate the landscaping. Another custom assembly uses the phase change properties of paraffin wax to harvest additional energy from the pool. Copper tubing runs through a vat of wax; the wax absorbs energy as it liquefies (during the day, for example, when the pool water is hot). When the wax later re-solidifies, it releases this energy, which can be used to heat the house. This method of energy storage is significantly more efficient than using water to perform the same thermodynamic task.

The main vault for these systems is accessed through a secret door in the stained ipe deck adjacent to the pool. “This is absolutely crazy!” Thomas Bercy exclaimed before disappearing down the ladder to show off the configuration. Inside the small concrete room, one is surrounded by the requisite maze of pipes, valves, filters, and pumps that comprise the system itself. This is an intense amount of infrastructure for a residential project, and evidence of the massive effort required both to realize and then to conceal this network of systems. Even more amazingly, Bercy Chen completed the design of these custom features in-house without the use of a consultant. 

While the complexity of this particular installation is not one that Thomas Bercy is eager to repeat, some of the ideas — the use of the pool as a heat sink, the ambitious planting strategy, the literal division of the house into public and private sectors — are captured on a smaller scale in Bercy Chen’s Edgelands House (featured in the January/February 2014 issue of TA). The Cascading Creek House, then, exists as a prototype, one enabled by the interests of the client and his ample budget. 

The environmental features — the aquatic loop, tight insulation, and deep overhangs — definitely help to mitigate the operating costs of the house, but they exist alongside other items as amenity gadgets. It is clear that the reasons for such impressive features originate from technical fascination, not an overriding concern for sustainability. Here, the design skill lies in how well these pieces of technology are concealed within their larger spatial articulation. Seamless integration, Bercy said, was pursued in order “not to distract from home’s architectural value,” and to preserve its poetry, ambiance, and atmospheric qualities. 

The approach used here is an interesting foil to Bjarke Ingels’ concept of hedonistic sustainability. The philosophy posits that sustainable actions can increase quality of life and overturns the medicinal assumption that going green needs to hurt for it to be properly effective. The recent built work of Bjarke Ingels Group makes good on this approach, but the idea is still recre-ationally didactic and therefore intrusive in the context of a private residence. 

What is most powerfully captured in the Cascading Creek House is the sleek concealment of mechanics, literally under the hood of a gorgeous space. Any hint of systems intrigue is either mysteriously decadent — as in the case of the initial giant scupper — or suppressed entirely, a kind of stealth green that innovates while maintaining the desired level of comfort. Over 90 years ago, Le Corbusier wrote, “A house is a machine for living in.” What kind of machine do you want?

Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA, lives in Austin and practices architecture at Baldridge Architects.

Published in Texas Architect May/June 2014.