Ottmers Residence

The Ottmers residence sits northeast of Fredericksburg in a land- house into eight-ft bays. The conditioned area is pulled back from the landscape of rolling, oak-covered hills. In 2002, Katherine and Jeffrey Ottmers relocated to the area, to land that has been in Jeffrey’s family since the mid-1850s and remains a functioning ranch. The couple quickly self-built a compact house where they lived with their two children. There were always plans for a larger home, and after some initial sketches, they sought the advice of family friend and architect Vincent Snyder, AIA, who later offered to design the house. His 2,200-sf scheme came to life as a design that Texas Society of Architects 2014 Design Awards juror Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, commended for being “at once part of vernacular tradition and the more universal language of con- temporary architecture.”

Clear structural articulation and a folded corrugated metal roof are the major architectural features of the project, which took inspiration from nearby farm buildings. Exposed cedar timbers divide the house into eight-ft bays. THe conditioned area is pulled back from the south edge of the roof, giving the house a double-height, full-length porch. The first floor’s large open living area culminates in a fireplace at the east end built with stone from historic fences on the property. The staircase’s width is expressed on the north side of the building, where a small creased roof shelters the front door. Oversize cuts in the outer cladding provide ample light for the second-floor bedrooms and frame views of adjacent terrain.

From the beginning, it was understood that the house was to be self-built. Jeffrey completed most of the work as funds became available, using contracted help only when necessary. A few details were provided by Snyder, but many decisions were made in the field, resulting in a house that is simple in craft while still solidly built. Rather than working from drawings, Jeffrey constructed the house from Snyder’s Rhino model, which laid out the framing with fenestration and partitions organized in a logical way (based on integer numbers of studs). “Everything was there,” Jeffrey remembered about the model. When there were problems, he said, it was likely because they had deviated from the reference model.

Economic constraint focused Snyder’s concern on larger design gestures that properly “captured the landscape, light, and space as it changes throughout the day and time of year.” This was accomplished through the house’s gridded arrangement and appropriate fenestration, a combination that juror Tim Love, AIA, praised for “showing off the logic of wood frame construction.” Even before the sheetrock was 

hung, the family was already using the house as a gathering space. It was enjoyable even then because, as Jeffrey described it, “all of the qualities of the house were there as soon as the structure was finished.”

The Ottmers House was designed to operate passively. The solar shield roof eliminates direct sunlight from the interior, and its single slope gathers runoff on the north side, where catchment cisterns will be located. Despite the initial cost, the house uses sprayed insulation, making the interior tight enough to be comfortable year-round (a single mini-split unit downstairs was only recently installed). Windows and doors easily ventilate the house with prevailing winds and provide consistent light. Water comes from a nearby well dug by prior generations of Ottmerses, and there are plans in the future to go entirely off the grid.

Because of the fluid and incremental construction schedule, parts of the design changed during the house’s realization and, in fact, progress continues, as is the case with most self-built dwellings. The porch roof framing was initially left exposed but later cladded to discourage bats and birds from nesting there. The current kitchen is temporary, and the master bath is still under construction. Outside to the north, a stone wall, again sourced from older walls on the ranch, protects a nascent bed of wildflowers and native grasses. This sequencing allows the family to build at their own pace and embodies the refreshing humbleness of the residence and its inhabitants.

Direct connection to the outside landscape was a key requirement for the Ottmerses. Six doors allow a quick exit in every direction. Sleeping happens upstairs, but the living is principally done downstairs and outdoors. The covered porch, cooled by breezes that are funneled along its length, is the most desirable location on the property for most of the year. It is a popular destination for the extended family, which convenes there for holidays and gatherings. Jeffrey’s father, who lives on the ranch, was at first skeptical of the building for its odd shape and tall peak, but he was won over by the porch and now spends many afternoons perched at its southeast corner. From here, one can survey the grazing cattle and talkative goats, cats, dogs, geese, bluebirds, purple martins, hawks, bats, and insects that also call this verdant place home. 

Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA, is a designer at Baldridge Architects in Austin. 

Published in the September/October 2014 issue of Texas Architect.