Une Petite Maison -- the AIA Homes Tour by J.C. Schmeil

It's been over a year since my last post on the project, and we've been happily living in the house since last September.  It was featured recently in a houzz.com article, and will be on the AIA Austin Homes Tour, Nov. 2-3.

The front porch was finished off with an end-of-project splurge-- Kyle Gordon of KG Stone delivered some travertine pavers reclaimed from the LBJ Library remodel, and we laid them over the existing and new concrete.

Roger and Paul Wintle of Texas Trim did a fantastic job on all of the cabinets and trim work.  Paul practically lived at the house for about six weeks, and was happy to move on when I stopped asking him to build "just one more cabinet."  Jeff Bennett stepped in to help with the office cabinets and the kitchen butcher block.  Paul's "piece-de-resistance" is featured in the new dining room/library-- a full-height wall of bookshelves.

Paul and I collaborated to design the "wood tiled wall," which is composed of ripped-down panels of maple plywood attached in a running bond pattern (which echoes the travertine on the front porch).  Rafael Gamez, our excellent painter, came up with the whitewash finish.  The "Gransuite" can be seen through the open doorway.

The boys' old bedroom and bathroom have been converted to provide a peaceful guest suite for visitors.


Decorum Stone provided the Hanstone countertops at the kitchen island.  The look complements the "Healing Aloe" paint color (Benjamin Moore) that Ashley picked for the cabinets.

The wood butcher block countertop is from IKEA.  Groove Glass fabricated the steel frame for the stair guardrail, and Nick Bell installed the maple panels.  The original white oak floors were refinished, and new flooring was laid over the kitchen's original pine.

A barn door under the stair leads to a new office, which overlooks the backyard.  We carved out some space in the hallway for a "family locker" system.

A door off of the office leads to a new laundry room.

Paul Wintle built the new media cabinet in the family room.  The master bedroom is one of the few rooms that wasn't changed during the project (though we did add a couple of bookshelves and a new dresser).

The hall upstairs has a cutout window that looks down into the dining room.

We salvaged quite a bit of the original longleaf pine from interior walls and ceilings, and re-used it as flooring in the boys' bedrooms.  The two rooms are divided by back-to-back closets, and can be closed off from the hall by a large barn door.

We were able to design a cozy nook above the vaulted dining room ceiling-- it's a perfect reading spot for Beckett.

The corner windows bring in plenty of light, and are another nice spot to perch.

Many years ago, I promised the boys a "Scooby Doo" bookcase.  We finally had a chance to design it.  The bookcase rolls aside on skateboard wheels to reveal the hidden music room.

The bathroom has good light and a simple palette of glass tile in two colors (from Hakatai).

There's still a bit of landscaping to do, but hopefully everything will be in place by the weekend of November 2nd/3rd-- come visit us on the AIA Austin Homes Tour!  Thanks to everyone who put in so much time and effort on the project (and thanks to Patrick Wong and Whit Preston for the great photographs).

Mid-century Modern Makeover by J.C. Schmeil

Lloyd and Kirsten first contacted me in 2008 about a remodel to their house north of Hyde Park in Austin.  As the discussions progressed, the economy worsened, and the project was put on hold.  Eventually they sold the house and moved 2 miles south to Hyde Park proper.  We had kept in touch intermittently, and in 2011 we sat down again to discuss plans for this house.  Built in 1950, the house had some inherent mid-century charm and good flow.  An addition, however, had been poorly done sometime in the 70s-- it was out of level, uninspiring, and made no connection to the backyard.

poorly designed addition, before remodel

The addition connected the living area to the kitchen, and Lloyd and Kirsten wanted to remodel the entire space.  The main goals for the project were to open up the living area to the dining area/lounge, and open the lounge to the outdoors.

interior of dining/lounge, before remodel

We widened the opening between the living room and the dining room, keeping the existing doorway but cutting out a portion of the adjacent wall.  In order to still give a bit of separation and privacy from the street, we added a screen of vertical wood slats.

We also leveled the floors in the dining room and lounge, and added new oak flooring.  New windows and a sliding patio door bring in the light and give the house a nice connection to the new deck and lawn area.  We took advantage of a strange offset in the wall framing to create a continuous wood picture ledge on one wall.

Kirsten sourced some Eichler siding for the wall separating the lounge and the kitchen, and painted it a cool grey-green color which nicely offsets the warm maple cabinetery and the Heywood-Wakefield dining set.

The kitchen was outdated and needed some modern inspiration.

kitchen, before remodel

Kirsten and Lloyd chose a muted mosaic tile to use as a backsplash and the entire back wall of the kitchen.  Cork floors give a nice feel underfoot.

Thanks to the perseverance and great taste of Lloyd and Kirsten, and the excellent work done by contractor John Edmond, the project is a success!  Additional thanks to Whit Preston for the great photos.

Southern Gothic - a Halloween Post by J.C. Schmeil

It was a dark and stormy night, the wind howling outside the studio as I hunched over my drawing board.  A faint "tap-tap-tap" broke my concentration, and I looked up to see two spectral figures illuminated by the gaslight outside the front door.  I recognized them as neighbors and welcomed them inside.  After a restorative toddy, they related their tale of woe...

They resided with their two sons in a South Austin bungalow that had seen better days.  The ceiling was falling into the kids' bedroom, and to use the bathroom was truly to commune with nature.  They needed more room and a drastic remodel of their house was in order.  Could I help? 

It was a perplexing riddle, until I became aware of the clients' deep and abiding adoration of Halloween.  To these neighbors, All Hallows Eve was like Christmas, the 4th of July, and Thanksgiving combined.  One word was all the inspiration I needed: Beetlejuice!

We decided to give the non-descript bungalow some Southern Gothic style.  One of the goals of the project was to add a couple of bedrooms upstairs for the boys.  By giving the roof a steeper pitch and adding some dormers, we were able to gain space on the second floor without building an entire second floor.  The stairs would go inside a tower with a widow's walk above it.

 It was an enjoyable project to work on, and Melynn Mayfield (my intern at the time) had fun with the renderings.  Alas, funding became an issue and the design was put on hold.  Hopefully someday we'll be able to see the project through construction... until then, Happy Halloween!

Une Petite Maison -- All Dried In by J.C. Schmeil

After the framing was completed and the wall sheathing and roof decking installed, we were ready to install the windows.  All of the new windows are Andersen 100 Series, with a few exceptions.  The 100 Series is a composite vinyl window made of recycled material.  On the north side of the house downstairs, we were required by code to use aluminum-clad windows since our house sits over the setback (a fire concern, apparently).  The corner windows are custom aluminum windows made by Joe Gaspard at Groove Glass.  Joe and I have worked on quite a few projects together, including the Yaspar Residence and the Zilker Treehouse.

Prior to siding, the metal roof was installed.  Ed Hayes of ATX Metal Roofing installed a galvalume snap-lock (hidden fastener system) metal roof, which looks great.  I've worked with Ed on a number of projects in the past, and he and Joe Hopkins (framing) worked well together.  We had hoped to reuse some of the old metal panels that came off the carport, but in the end it was easier to go with new panels, so we gave the old roofing material to our concrete crew.

Shortly after the siding started, the framing crew had to leave town for Nebraska.  I had hoped to have the siding finished before they left, but it had to wait until just a few days ago, after a 2-week break.  We have two different sizes of smooth hardi plank siding-- a 4" exposure to match the back of the house, and an 8"exposure.  Unfortunately I came home one day to find that the entire second story had been clad in the 8" exposure (which is not the way it was drawn up).  I was concerned it would make the house look a bit top-heavy, but in the interest of keeping things rolling I let it slide.  I think it will look fine once it's all painted.

We passed our rough inspections with flying colors and were ready to insulate.  Felix de Leon and Done Right Insulation stapled cocoon-like sheeting over the framing prior to blowing in rockwool insulation.  It made the whole house look like it was covered with a spiderweb.

The roof insulation is open cell foam, sprayed out of a hose connected to a machine in the truck outside.  Haz mat suits not strictly required, but recommended due to the adhesive nature of the foam...

The open cell foam expands to fill the rafter cavities.  Besides insulating against heat gain, it's a good acoustical insulation as well.

Here's a view into the front room, over the stack of sheetrock awaiting RC Brown's drywall crew.  Beckett had some fun climbing on and over the obstacle...

In this photo you can see the "rockwool" insulation in the wall cavity and the open cell foam at the roof.  At this point, I am way behind in posting progress photos... so will try to catch up in the next couple of days, since the project should be wrapping up in about 4 weeks.

Une Petite Maison - Concrete Pour by J.C. Schmeil

I'm a few weeks behind but wanted to post some photos of the concrete pour.  There are some mistakes in residential construction that are relatively easy to fix... concrete, not so easy.  So I was a little bit worried.  The concrete subcontractor had the forms up quickly for the laundry room addition, but I noticed it seemed a little small.  Yep, 9'x6' instead of 9'x9'.  They had to dig another beam trench and reset the rebar.

Once that was corrected, they formed up the front porch extension.  I checked the dimensions the evening before the concrete pour and-- oops-- 2' too long.  Fortunately they were able to correct that before the concrete truck showed up the next day.  Once the truck arrived, it sat across the street for a few minutes, growing a "tail"...

When the chute was sufficiently long, the truck backed up the driveway as the concrete crew used a 2x8 to lift branches out of the way.  Once the truck was in place, they directed the chute over the porch formwork.

Then the driver let 'er rip, and the mix started to fill the formwork as the workers aided the flow over the rebar and compacted it.

I went upstairs for a bird's-eye view...

After the porch was done, the truck backed up a little more to access the laundry room formwork.  It didn't take long to complete the pour, after which the workers spent some time smoothing it out with steel trowels.  I had spent some time earlier laying out the anchor bolt placement and marking it on the formwork-- the anchor bolts are J-shaped bolts that get placed in the concrete with about 2" sticking up from the top of the slab.  Once the slab cures, the sole plate (framing bottom plate) is marked for the bolt locations, drilled, and placed over the bolts.  Washers and nuts tighten the plate down to the slab.

This was more of a concern though.  The photo above shows the T-shaped steel plates I designed to connect the porch posts (Douglas fir 8x8s) to the concrete porch.  Two of the plates were expansion bolted into the existing porch, but the other two had to be set in the right location.  Fortunately I was there because the concrete contractor initially set them rotated 90 degrees, a mistake that I caught and corrected right away.  The next step was to notch the columns, which the framers did with an electric chain saw.  Then the columns were slipped over the steel plates and through-bolted (the plates were pre-drilled).  

It ought to hold up just fine-- the columns sit about 2" above the porch to minimize potential damage from rot.  Each plate weighs about 20 pounds and is welded out of 1/2" steel plate.  Next up, more framing, windows and roofing...

Une Petite Maison - Framing Begins! by J.C. Schmeil

It's been a few weeks since I last posted, and there's been a lot of progress!  I have also quit drinking coffee in an attempt to manage my stress levels.  After months of sunny skies and drought-like conditions, the skies opened up once we had the roof off.  First the trusses went up...

It was great to see the construction progress, and by the end of the day I could stand on the second floor decking, with views of the trees and a few downtown (and neighboring) buildings.

The framing crew secured the tarp over the top of the trusses, but an epic storm hit and dumped nearly three inches of rain in the Austin area... some of which ended up in the family room.  I didn't take pictures of that, but we spent Sunday morning hauling a waterlogged rug and all of our furniture out into the yard to dry out.  Fortunately I don't think there's any long term damage, and Joe and Nick came right over on Sunday to help out.  Despite the rainy forecast, the crew managed to start the roof framing on Monday.

With the rafters framed, the tarp performed better and while there was still some rain that got in, the back of the house stayed dry.  The framers were able to work under the tarp as the rain continued.  The house still looks like a wreck from the outside but hopefully that will be remedied in the next couple of weeks...

It's been fun to see the upstairs take shape and to get a sense for how the rooms will feel.  There are two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a music room-- the music room will have a "Scooby Doo bookcase" entry, which I have been promising the boys for years.  I'm particularly happy with the view of the live oaks and bamboo out the corner window of the music room.  In this photo you can also see the roof over the family room and master bedroom.  We have relocated the furnace to the adjacent attic space, so all of the ductwork will run from there to the other rooms of the house.

I know in my head what all of this will look like, but it's hard to physically envision it right now.  Plywood covers the ground floor openings and not all of the windows are framed in.  Here you can see the old "teardrop" wood siding, which will essentially act as sheathing for the house.  We'll go over that with building paper and plywood strips, then hardi plank which will be painted a dark gray-blue color ("Ocean Floor" by Benjamin Moore).

Despite my best planning, the live oak limbs were still a bit too close to the new roof.  Whitney Rasco, local arborist and master storyteller, came over to do some minor trimming to prevent angry roofers from taking a sawz-all to any limbs.  The back bedroom has a great view of the trees-- you can see the small 2'x2' window tucked under the gable in this photo.  Beckett's old bedroom (on the ground floor) is getting new windows and will be an office.

One of the biggest challenges of the project so far has been keeping my little parkour afficionado from using scaffolding and open framing as a jungle gym...

Tomorrow should be a busy day, with exterior sheathing and some windows going in (fingers crossed)...

Une Petite Maison - Demolition! by J.C. Schmeil

Demolition started on Monday, and has proceeded with amazing speed.  Corbin and Beckett got a tour of their old house when they arrived home from school. The front half of the roof had already been removed, and a blue tarp made the house look like a big tent.

The interior finishes were also removed.  In Central Texas cottages of this vintage, the typical construction was 2x4 framing with 1x6 "shiplap" pine on the interior.  A cloth would then be tacked to the interior siding, and wallpaper hung on the cloth.  Here you can see remnants of the original wallpaper.  The shiplap interior siding acts as a diaphragm to strengthen the building, so we're leaving it in place.  It will eventually be covered with sheetrock.

Ashley was very surprised to walk in the front door and see all that had happened in a single day...

By the end of the day the trash pile in the front yard was getting intimidating.  Unfortunately our lot doesn't have a good location for a haul-off dumpster, and the site-built 8'x8' square container failed to contain the mountain of debris...

While Joe Hopkins and his able crew were moving forward with demolition, Nick Bell of NSB Builders framed a temporary wall between the front of the house and the back.  I've worked with both Joe and Nick before-- Joe framed the Yaspar Residence in 2005, and Nick has contracted two projects for me, the most recent of which I'll be posting soon on my website.

Steven Kruse of Modern Electric has cut power to the front of the house, and installed our temporary electrical pole in the front yard.  Once the addition is framed up he'll start pulling the new wiring.

We'll move into the back of the house at the end of May, at which point the addition should be "dried in" and the work will be less disruptive.  We're currently living across the street at Jason and Tara's SoCo rental.  The scene in the backyard is much more peaceful than the view of our front yard.

By the end of the day today, I had come to the full realization that this project is nothing short of a complete reconstruction of the existing cottage.  Perhaps it was when I unlocked the door and saw this...

All that remains of the original cottage is the exterior (and a few interior) walls, and the original oak flooring, now protected by yellow corrugated plastic.  Tomorrow the new interior walls will go up, as well as the second floor trusses and decking. 

In the meantime, we have a nice "open air" shower...

Une Petite Maison - Foundation Work by J.C. Schmeil

Foundation work started last Tuesday.  A crew from Douglas Foundation Repair showed up early and started by removing the skirting around the base of the house, so that they would have access to the crawl space.

When the house was built around 1935, the typical foundation consisted of cedar tree trunk piers.  Cedar is weather and rot-resistant, and a plentiful building material in Central Texas, and these cedar piers have done the job for almost eighty years.  These days, however, cedar piers are not recommended and it's a good idea to replace them with concrete piers, especially if the house will be under additional loading from a second story.

The workers used heavy-duty jacks to lift the house incrementally and level it to its original state.  One corner of the dining room was 3" lower than the corner diagonally opposite, but after leveling it doesn't feel like a "fun house" anymore.  Wood block cribbing was placed under the beams to support the weight of the house as the piers were excavated and removed.  The crawl space under the house is pretty tight, and there is probably less than 12" between the bottom of framing and grade at the back of the house.  The guys had to tunnel toward the back in order to have access to the piers.  New holes were dug for the 24"x24"x12" concrete footings to support the concrete piers.

Despite cedar's durability, most of the piers had experienced some rotting (especially the portions below grade).  The northwest corner of the house also had some damage to the wood beams due to a leaky hose bibb.

Next the workers set cardboard "sonotube" forms on top of the concrete footings.  The footings had rebar extending vertically to tie into the piers.  The cardboard tubes were filled with concrete and the new foundation is in place!  Note the shiny new hose bibb that has replaced the leaky culprit...

Sometime this week the guys will come back to remove the cardboard forms and the cribbing.  Demolition has begun!

More to come soon...

Une Petite Maison - the project begins! by J.C. Schmeil

We bought our little house in South Austin in 1998, fresh out of graduate school.  We were living in Clarksville at the time and we loved the area, but couldn't find anything in our price range.  When Ashley's mom heard we were going to pay $108,000 for an 820-square-foot cottage that needed work, she thought we were crazy.  The house had been a rental, inhabited by a man with an apparently incontinent cat.  Fortunately there were some nice oak floors under all the stained carpet, and we managed to fix it up pretty well over the next few months.

The day we closed on the house, the porno theater on the corner closed (photo above of its transformation into office space by Miro Rivera Architects).  Back in those days, South Congress was still a bit seedy, and the Hotel San Jose rented rooms by the hour.  Needless to say, the neighborhood has changed a bit.  Though we are technically in Bouldin Creek, we're part of an island between South First Street and South Congress, and our neighborhood definitely has more of the SoCo vibe.

We added on to the house in 2002, when our first son Corbin was two years old.  I contracted the project, which consisted of a 700-square-foot addition that contained a family room, master bedroom and master bathroom.  We also remodeled the kitchen, doing a lot of the work ourselves.  We just recently decided to expand again, and now we're in the process of moving 14 years worth of accumulated junk out of the front part of the house (the original cottage) so that we can get the project started.

The first step was to obtain a "life safety permit" which is required when previous work has been done without a final inspection.  Unfortunately, that was my fault-- we were in a hurry to finish up the first addition so that my parents (who were coming from Singapore) could stay with us.  So 10 years after the fact, we got our final inspection.  We also needed to obtain a tree permit-- we have two large live oaks in our back yard, and any tree over 19" diameter is considered a "protected" tree, subject to inspection by the City Arborist prior to the start of a construction project.  Fortunately our addition will be almost entirely above the existing house, so it won't affect the critical root zone of either tree.

We have been getting bids from subcontractors and we started the project two days ago.  The first task was to remove the asbestos shingles that were put up over the original wood siding.  It only took about four hours and the work was performed by CAP Construction, a San Antonio company certified for asbestos removal and transport (suits, masks and all).  Here's what the house looked like afterwards:

Now we can see the original wood clapboard siding, painted white.  There's still some black felt paper on the house which we'll remove soon.  Next up: foundation repair!

Zilker Kitchen Remodel by J.C. Schmeil

old kitchen

When Shelly and Colin initially approached me about a kitchen remodel, we didn't realize quite how extensive the project would be.  The existing kitchen was a small space at the front of the house.  It was cozy but definitely needed some updating.  After we discussed the project goals, a new plan for the kitchen began to take shape.

Shelly provided a detailed "master plan document" that described project goals and concerns.  The main priority was an updated kitchen, with secondary goals that included a more usable sunroom, a dedicated entry and/or mudroom, and separate living areas for TV viewing and relaxing.  

old living room

The question was whether to renovate the existing kitchen or build a new kitchen elsewhere in the house.  The downstairs rooms did not function particularly well, mainly because there were three living spaces "enfilade"-- each room led into the next and none of them had a clear identity.
It didn't take long for us to decide that the best option would be to relocate the kitchen to the center of the house.  That would allow the first living space to be the primary living space, with a view and access to the kitchen, which then would lead through to a new dining room with access to the deck and back yard.  This meant that the old kitchen could become a small media room.

The new kitchen is separated from the front living area by a bar counter with built-in storage above it and to either side.  The bar counter and the countertop below it (with downdraft range) are black silestone.  White-painted cabinets help reflect light and unify the space, while maroon marmoleum provides an easily cleanable backsplash.

stairs before

Shelly and Colin were a bit concerned about the stairs coming down into the kitchen.  We designed a storage and display "hutch" against the balusters to help define the edge of the kitchen, and took advantage of the space under the stairs for yet more storage.  We also opened up the doorway an additional three feet to diminish the separation between the kitchen and the dining area beyond.

former sunroom



The dining room (formerly the sunroom) served as a catch-all space for laundry and was really only part of the circulation to and from the adjacent laundry room or the back yard.  A red island with a butcher block countertop (affordably purchased from IKEA) now helps to define the kitchen work area, so that anyone wanting to move from one room to another won't be in the way of the chef. 

We anchored the space by adding built-in seating and yet another free-standing piece of furniture cabinetry.  This was something that Shelly had planned for all along: the toast and coffee center.  With the fridge immediately adjacent, it provides a way to quickly and easily get a caffeine fix without interrupting breakfast preparation.  We designed it to fit neatly beneath the existing windows and to provide a nice termination for the built-in seating.  

As for some other items on the wish list... it was a bit of a challenge to add a new entry hall, but we were able to borrow a few feet from the guest bedroom to create a nice hallway with a door out to the driveway.  We also borrowed a bit of cabinet space from the adjacent guest bathroom to carve out a family locker area.  Painted perforated locker doors allow air to circulate to the shelves behind them, while drawers beneath stow everything from dog leashes to baseball gear.  

And the old kitchen?  It was transformed into a "media lounge" with fluted glass barn doors to separate it from the main living area.  It's now a cozy place to read or watch a movie. 

Roger Wintle of Texas Trim contracted the project and did a fantastic job throughout.  Paul Wintle built all of the cabinetry and served as general problem-solver.  All photography of the completed project is by Whit Preston.  Thanks to Shelly, Colin, and everyone involved! 

San Antonio Riverwalk and Hotel Havana by J.C. Schmeil

My wife Ashley and I took a quick trip down to San Antonio over the weekend to celebrate our wedding anniversary and check out the Hotel Havana.  Originally built in 1914, the hotel was renovated and reopened last year by Liz Lambert.  We live just a few blocks from the Hotel San Jose in Austin, which Liz also owns-- when we moved into our South Austin bungalow, the San Jose was still a "by the hour" motel.  The renovation of the San Jose helped spur the revitalization along South Congress Avenue, so we were curious to see what was going on around the "Museum Reach" end of San Antonio's River Walk.

The Havana is full of Old World charm-- lots of dark wood and velvet, and carefully curated spaces throughout.  Though we were originally booked into a ground floor room, we were moved upstairs upon request.  Room 32 was comfortably appointed, with a view of the River Walk and a European refrigerator full of diversions.  


We headed down through the basement bar, to the Ocho Lounge on a terrace overlooking the River Walk. 

The Ocho has a distinctive greenhouse feel, with a ridge skylight running the length of the restaurant.  It is built up against the brick wall of the Havana, and framed in turquoise-painted steel.  

Operable glass garage doors can open up to a small terrace with stools and a long drink rail looking out onto the River Walk.

All of the menu items looked enticing, but we settled on the chorizo con queso and a spicy caesar salad with shrimp, with a couple of Havana margaritas to wash it down.  

The hotel manager, Tom Ozene, stopped by our table to chat.  Tom gave us the history of the hotel, as well as recommendations for strolling the River Walk, and later sent over a complimentary bottle of Cristalino and a chocolate pot de creme. Sonia, our server, was very attentive and helpful as well with suggestions. 

By the time we finished our dinner and drinks, we knew we needed to walk it off.  We set off along the Museum Reach toward the Pearl Brewery Complex.  This section of the River Walk is surprisingly empty of tourists (at least at 8pm on a Friday).  It opened in 2009, after a decade of planning and construction.  The Walk features landscaped paths, with public art installations along the route.

Drawn by conjunto music and the sounds of revelry, we stopped about halfway to the Pearl at VFW 76 (the oldest post in Texas), housed in a 1904 Victorian-style home.  Most weekends during the summer, the post hosts "Dancing Under the Stars," an event open to the public.  After a cold beer, we continued toward our final destination, the Pearl Brewery Complex.  The Pearl Brewery ceased production in 2001, but was subsequently purchased and developed into a destination for restaurants, shopping and cultural events.  We ended our walk at La Gloria, a new restaurant featuring interior Mexican "street food."  

If you haven't been to the Museum Reach on the River Walk, I recommend it-- I was impressed with the work that the city of San Antonio has done to ensure that the River Walk is an amenity for all, and not just a tourist mall.  We'll be back, and we look forward to another stay at the Hotel Havana...

Building Green by J.C. Schmeil

In the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries, green building was taken for granted... only back then, it was just called "building."  Conservation of resources, use of indigenous building materials, and siting a building for prevailing winds and passive solar gain were considered not only good sense, but vital to the structural integrity of the building and the survival of its inhabitants.

The"dog trot" house, a dwelling type commonly built in the southeast before air conditioning became ubiquitous, is a good example.  The classic dog trot was raised off of the ground to allow air to circulate under the house.  It typically was comprised of two rooms-- a cooking/eating area at one end, and a sleeping area at the other-- separated by an open breezeway.  The breezeway offered a cooler, covered area for sitting, and acted as a "central air conditioner" when windows were opened in the two adjacent rooms.  The photo at left is of a modern interpretation by architect Stephen Atkinson (photo by Timothy Hurley).

Today most people aren't willing to forgo air conditioning, but it still makes good sense to site a house for prevailing breezes and optimal daylighting.  In Texas, north-facing windows are desirable because they allow for a diffused natural light without heat gain, since the sun is always to the south at our geographic latitude.  Roof overhangs on the south facade of a building will help to block heat gain during the summer, when the sun is higher overhead, but will still allow some heat gain in the winter, when the sun is lower in the sky.  The Caswell Residence, at right, has a roof that vaults to the north and large, north-facing windows to provide the upstairs study with diffuse daylight.

Green design's emphasis on sustainability encourages the careful selection of building materials as well.  My friends Jill and Kenan, owners of the Yaspar Residence, asked that we design their addition with the tenets of bioregionalism in mind. Consequently we tried to use as many locally harvested and sourced materials as possible, including long-leaf pine flooring reclaimed from old barns in the area.  We also used hardiplank siding, which is composed of a cellulose fiber and cement mixture.  While not a locally harvested material, it's considered "green" in the sense that it requires very little maintenance and has a long lifespan relative to many other building materials.

Metal roofing is considered a green alternative to composite shingles, due to its lifespan and the fact that it keeps a building cooler.  It can be made even greener by installing it on 3/4" furring strips and combining a ridge vent with a perforated roof drip edge-- this allows air to move in between the metal and the wood roof decking, which helps to cool the roof without introducing any outside air into the building itself.  Foam insulation is another product that works toward greater energy efficiency.  While polyurethane foam is a great acoustic and thermal insulator, there is a soy-based version that reduces the percentage of petroleum in the composition of the foam.

Green design should always fit the building to the site, which means retaining as many of the desired trees and as much native vegetation as possible.  Dead trees can be harvested and locally milled for incorporation into the design, such as the walnut bar counter and trim at the Yaspar Residence (above), and the pecan bar counter and trim at the Courtyard Residence (at left).

There are a number of programs at the national and local level that encourage green building and provide more information on sustainable design.  The City of Austin's Green Building Program was one of the first programs in the country to encourage green building.  The U.S. Green Building Council's LEED program (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accredits professionals in sustainable design and provides a rating system for green building design and construction.  For more information on green building materials, products and techniques, check out websites like Jetson Green or Green Building Advisor.  Or just give us a call!

Making Mid-Century Modern by J.C. Schmeil

Recent trends have embraced Mid-Century Modern design for its simplicity, its attention to detail, and its openness.  Owners of Eichler homes in California, or houses designed by such architects as Fehr + Granger in Austin in the 1950s, extol the virtues of open-plan living.  The open plan is no longer unique of course, but good mid-century homes still exude an appealing optimism.  Such houses typically have a front facade that is somewhat private, with larger expanses of glass opening to yard and landscape at the back of the house.  These houses lend themselves well to modernization, because they still feel modern.

We recently completed Phase 2 of a remodel/addition to a 1950s house in West Lake Hills, outside of Austin.  Though the structure of the house paid homage to California early modern architecture, interior walls blocked views of the Wild Basin Nature Preserve to the north.  The kitchen was small, dark and cramped, and had no connection to the living space. 

Phase I of the Wild Basin Residence focused on increasing the transparency of the interior spaces, while retaining some structure to create layered views. Stainless steel countertops, maple cabinets and glass mosaic tile brighten the kitchen, which can finally look out the glazed living room wall to the nature preserve beyond.

A new smooth-troweled cement plaster fireplace surround updates the living room, while creating a textural contrast to the rough-laid limestone wall.

Phase 2 of the Wild Basin Residence comprises a new garage, patios, office, family room, and master suite. Design work focused on creating a connection between the addition and the site, and included a swimming pool.  The T-shape of the house creates a sheltered courtyard at the front of the house, while helping to reclaim the landscape in the back yard.  The old porch roof was removed, and a new "butterfly" roof added, bringing in more northern light and views.  The flagstones were replaced with a concrete porch, which presents less of a tripping hazard.  The wood tongue-and-groove decking reads as a continuation of the interior ceiling finish.

The builder, Brady Behrens of CasaBella Homes, had some good ideas (such as using thicker Hardi trim boards as siding to approximate the original redwood siding) and did a great job with the construction.

The addition exhibits the same post-and-beam mid-century vernacular as the existing house, with plentiful glazing to admit light and views. Painted hardi siding, galvalume roofing, low-E windows and cork flooring all contribute to the sustainable design. 

Another recent project transformed a non-descript 1950s ranch house into something more suitable for the young family who purchased the property.

The Ridgeview Residence comprises a "gut remodel" and addition to a house in the Zilker neighborhood. The remodel opened the kitchen to views of the back yard, improved circulation through the living spaces, and replaced outdated cabinets and interior finishes.

Skylights were added to bring more light into the interior of the house, and the wall between the kitchen and the living/dining area was removed.  A large kitchen island anchors the space and provides informal seating.  The single door and small windows that looked out onto the 1/2-acre back yard were replaced with sliding patio doors, which open onto the new patio and screened dining porch.

The existing garage was converted to a new family room, with a carport added to
the west.  The back of the garage was opened up with sliding doors to access the patio and pool beyond.  The garage remodel also accommodates a laundry room with access to the patio and an outdoor shower.

The garage door was replaced with a bay window, which looks out onto the landscaped front yard.  The end result of the project is a "modern ranch" that takes full advantage of its site.

While both the Wild Basin Residence and the Ridgeview Residence were fairly substantial remodels/additions, you can make your own "Mid-century" modern by following a few simple guidelines:

1) Create a connection with the site.  This could be as simple as changing out a solid door for one with glass, to allow views into the backyard or to the front porch.  Decks are also a great way to make the transition from inside to outside, and can be built relatively inexpensively.  If you need to build more than a couple of steps from the deck down to grade, make them wide steps that can also be used as seats.

2) Open up interior spaces.  Open walls with cased openings, or remove walls where possible to allow for layered views through the house.  This makes a house feel larger and less formal.  You can also replace solid interior doors with glazed doors, where privacy is not an issue.

3) Consider built-ins.  While it's true that you can't take them with you if you move, built-ins are a great way to give your house some character and maximize functionality.  They work especially well in a small house.

Thanks for visiting, please feel free to post questions or comments!

Architecture and Memory by J.C. Schmeil

I lived in Tokyo, Japan from the age of eleven until I graduated from high school.  It was a pretty significant portion of my "formative years," so in some ways I consider Tokyo my hometown.  I recently spent a month in Osaka (see anarchitectinjapan.blogspot.com for more on that), followed up by four days in Tokyo.  I stayed at a ryokan (Japanese inn) in Shibuya, the Tokyo district where we lived, and was able to spend some time walking through the neighborhoods of my youth.  It got me thinking about how architecture is mapped in our memories, and the extent to which the map accords with reality.

The idea of architecture being inextricably bound with memory has been studied and discussed at great length, of course.  Buildings were once (and still are, to some extent) considered the physical manifestation of cultural memory, a means of passing down cultural and societal values.  On a personal level, some of our first memories have to do with buildings, or with the spaces that we experienced in our childhood.  In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard describes a phenomenological response to architecture-- it's not an analytical observation, but rather the "lived experience," where architecture is defined by the imagination.

A few years ago I designed a house for some friends here in Austin.  The upstairs is loosely based on my memories of a house in Stockholm that I lived in when I was young.  My brother and I each had our own bedroom upstairs, with a large (at least in my memory) play area between them.  Looking at photos of that house now, I realize that the the upstairs couldn't have been that big-- it was essentially an attic with some dormer windows.  But the fact that it was our space, both individually and collectively, has made it seem bigger in memory.  My hope in designing the upstairs for my friends' house is for their two young sons to feel the same way...

To get back to Tokyo though: what I had most looked forward to was the opportunity to wander the old neighborhood and walk the routes I used to take, from train station to home, from home to the park, etc.  I was amazed that although Tokyo has changed significantly since I moved away, I was able to still locate a few remembered landmarks and find myself where I wanted to be.  The bronze statue of Hachiko (the loyal dog) is still in front of Shibuya Station, like an old friend.  109 and Tokyu department stores are still there as well, marking my turning points.  Beyond that, there aren't really any more landmarks-- just a couple of long stretches on a fairly quiet neighborhood street until I reached my house. Some of the houses on the street were different of course, but it was the same street that I remember riding down on my skateboard, "street luge" style.

When I reached the entrance to the little street where our house was, I wasn't sure what to expect.  The street is really a private drive, with two houses on one side and three on the other.  Ours was at the very end of the drive, on the right side.  The drive terminates at a tall wall, on the other side of which is the New Zealand Embassy.  As I walked up the drive, I noticed some conspicuously un-residential activity going on... it appeared that the entire compound had been turned into a television/movie production set.  The shed was gone from my old back yard, as was the wall that separated the yard from the drive.  The house looked different, especially with the production crew in the process of filming in the back yard.

The nameplate on the front of the house said "Natural."  Vines nearly obscured the facade, as if the house had been reclaimed by some mythical forest.  The interior of the house had been completely transformed-- the living room looked like someone's idea of a beach cottage, with wide-plank wood flooring and a few pieces of strategically placed furniture.  My parents' old room and the tv room upstairs were decorated in a similar fashion.  My brother's old bedroom door was locked from the exterior with a padlock.  And my old bedroom was now an office, crammed with a desk, chairs, bookshelves and binders.  Funny how what's in a room can change the experience so radically-- it had once seemed like such a cozy space, and hadn't ever felt cramped even with a desk, bed, dresser and weight bench in it.  The reality of my old house is now a "collective memory," someone else's idea of what a "natural" house is supposed to look like.  The physical house and its spaces are completely dissociated from my experience of the building as home, but it still exists mapped in my memory as it did over twenty years ago.

My friend Mark Schatz, an artist in Houston, recently completed a piece based on a childhood memory of a road trip (you can see the piece at Mark's website: http://www.markschatz.com/googling3.html).  He literally mapped his memory of the drive, combining it with GoogleEarth to create what might be called a piece of autobiographical fiction.  Our memories of architecture are usually based in physical reality, but are defined by our personal experience of those buildings or spaces.  As time passes and context changes, our remembered experience of a space becomes more meaningful to us than its physical reality.  Ultimately I think that's an argument for creating architecture that allows for an active imagining, rather than passive observation.  In practice, for me, that may mean the look or feel of a particular detail, the way sunlight slants through a window at a certain time of day, or a view that the observer feels has been captured especially for her.  Architecture experienced, without thinking.