Case Study: Alta Vista Residence by Alterstudio

Austin’s exponential building boom is leaving no neighborhood ungentrified, and that certainly makes it tough for anyone who needs affordable housing within the city limits. One glimmer of hope is the city’s ADU program, which allows homeowners to add another dwelling on their property. This light densification of desirable neighborhoods is a blessing both for owners and renters alike—and cities without such initiatives are taking notice.  

When Alterstudio’s clients approached the firm to build a custom home in the hot Travis Heights section of Austin, they already had an ADU on the wish list. Although they were technically empty nesters with a grown, self-supporting son, they had him in mind as their first tenant. Given his work as a chef, this pricey, convenient location would otherwise have been far out of reach. 

The clients—an architect and his wife—are design savvy and knowledgeable about real estate, so they wanted a property that would appreciate over time. In a way, they were micro-developers. “For them, it needed to have enough FAR [floor area ratio] that it feels like an investment,” recalls principal Kevin Alter. “But they were up for the idea that it not have a large profile. What was more important was that the building have integrity.”

The typical approach to new builds in the older, modest neighborhood is to max out every square inch of the small lots. With the clients on board, the firm was able to take advantage of this steeply sloping lot to get them the space they wanted without supersizing the street elevation. An extra 1,300 square feet for the main house tucks into a lower level, while still accommodating the secluded, 600-square-foot ADU for their son. A partial third level makes room for a guest suite and exercise studio without consuming all the air rights on the lot. 

The slope down to a creek creates a remarkably private oasis of sprawling live oaks, and all the interiors are geared to maximizing that natural view. Light-colored finishes—vertically board-formed concrete; white oak paneling, floors, and casework; white Caesarstone, white kitchen cabinetry—echo the landscape’s subtle hues. In the great room, a showstopping window wall opens more than 24 feet wide for full immersion in the panorama.

The stair to the third level offered an opportunity to bring additional light into the interiors, so the firm kept the structure light and painted timber elements white. “A lot of light comes down those stairs,” Kevin notes, “and it helps keep the middle of the room from seeming too dark. There’s a sense of elevating up into the light.”

As open and light as the interiors are, the front façade is more enigmatic. Clerestory windows top a long, vertically board-formed concrete wall, giving the illusion of transparency and welcome, while revealing nothing of the interiors. Flanking the wall on one side are steps down to the ADU and the informal entry from the carport; on the other side is the formal entry at the terminus of an ipe boardwalk.

In an unusual move, the owners sanctioned bringing the board-formed concrete wall inside, where it appears as the kitchen wall. Elsewhere in the house, its rough patterning finds sleek reinterpretation in oak paneling. “The oak walls could almost be the formwork for the board-formed walls,” says Kevin.

The overall effect is warm and inviting, both inside and out. But, of course, the most impressive sights on display are the live oaks—especially the one that fronts the property. During the course of the day, its shadow moves across the concrete wall, sharing its life force for all to see.

Image Gallery

Plans and Drawings

Project Credits

Alta Vista Residence

Austin, Texas

Architect: Kevin Alter, Ernesto Cragnolino, Tim Whitehill, Michael Woodland, Matt Slusarek, Haifa Hammami, Shelley McDavid, Alterstudio Architecture LLP, Austin, Texas

Builder: Adobe Modern Homes, Austin

Landscape Design: Aleman Design Build, Austin

Project Size: 3,836 square feet (main house); 617 square feet (ADU)

Site Size: .16 acre

Photography: Casey Dunn

Key Products

Cabinetry Hardware: Linnea, Top Knob 

Cooking Ventilation: Bosch (main), Best (porch grill)

Cooktop/Ovens: GE (main), Whirlpool (ADU)

Countertops: Caesarstone

Dishwasher: Bosch (main), Whirlpool (ADU)

Door Hardware: Emtek

Faucets: California Faucets, Artos

HVAC: Lennox

Insulation: Demilec Sealaction 500 

Lighting: HALO (interior), Soraa (exterior)

Lighting Control: Lutron

Outdoor Grill: Blaze

Paints: Sherwin-Williams

Refrigerator/Freezer: Sub-Zero (main), Whirlpool (ADU)

Roof Windows: VELUX

Sinks: Julien (main kitchen), Moen (ADU kitchen), Kohler

Thermal/Moisture Barriers, Sheathing, Subflooring: Huber Engineered Woods ZIP System and AdvanTech

Tile: Florida Tile, Daltile

Toilets: TOTO

Washer/Dryer: Maytag (main), Whirlpool (ADU)

Windows: Lincoln Windows

Window Wall Screen: Phantom Screen 

Window Wall Systems: Fleetwood

Wine Refrigeration: Marvel (main)

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