If there’s one thing Texas is known for, it’s wide open spaces, as the Dixie Chicks’ song goes. But for residents of Austin, which has seen exponential growth over the past few decades, those unsullied spaces are farther afield these days. The sleepy town of Leakey, where this family compound is situated, takes about three hours to reach from Austin and a tad over two from San Antonio. Once you arrive, however, you’re worlds away from the hustle of urban life, nestled into the undulations of Texas Hill Country. The star attraction here is the cool, spring-fed Frio River, banked in cypress and cedar trees. There’s a wide part of the river that’s especially conducive to swimming, fishing, kayaking, and other water sports.
Just before the housing crash of 2008, Austin-based custom builder David Dalgleish bought a large parcel of land for his own family compound and, with an investor, acquired another adjacent 200-acre parcel with the intention of developing a second-home community. Although the downturn slowed the buildout, Frio Cañon is moving along at a good clip now, with many parcels along the riverfront (where this lot is), and ones adjoining the meadow and Bybee Creek now sold and under construction.
Frio Cañon was conceived as a “legacy community,” says David. He envisioned a destination for multiple generations of family, where children range free, and neighbors interact as much or as little as they like. A hundred acres are set aside as wildlife preserve; there are trails for hiking, and several community buildings for events and holidays. David says his vision is catching on, and buyers are investing in high-quality houses they hope will pass on to their children and beyond.
Even with design guidelines (David is the ultimate arbiter), second-home communities can end up as a mixed bag of aesthetics. Some buyers export their city sensibilities and expectations of comfort and luxury, resulting in mini-me McMansions plopped down discordantly in rural settings. Luckily, David has worked with the best architects in Austin and has tightly controlled the list of approved designers. Tim Cuppett Architects is among his top choices, and that’s underscored by this latest house along the Frio riverfront.
One of the easy traps to fall into with second-home design is thinking first and foremost about the interior spaces. This can cause rooms to bloat and the entire program to emphasize the wrong design goal. The aim of the second house is not to carve out the usual laundry list of living spaces—the higher purpose is to connect to a special site and facilitate a kind of lifestyle that is uniquely of that place. Here, architect Tim Cuppett’s agenda was to expel people from the house and compel them to go enjoy nature, fresh air, and active pursuits.
To that end, he and firm partner David Kilpatrick, AIA, divided the program into a series of component buildings. There’s a main house with a partial second level for a bunkroom, two guest cottages with sleeping lofts, and a garage with an art space and meditation room above. They’re linked by a series of bridges, so kids can run barefoot and avoid the creepy crawly things below.
The road to the property parallels the river. All the buildings on-site are carefully rotated to take in long views to the river and avoid views of adjacent neighbors. “We are always looking beyond the other building sites,” says Tim. “We’re always looking across the floodplain.” That makes the property live even larger than its 2.8 acres.
Seeking to reinforce a human scale in the main house, the architects kept the requisite living room, kitchen, and first-floor master relatively small with average-height ceilings. Then they pulled them apart and inserted a soaring central breezeway that serves as the main dining room. It’s part interior room and part screened porch. Thresholds to all the rooms that connect to it are fully weatherstripped. Depending on the whims of Mother Nature, the dining room can be left open to the elements or closed off at each end with glass wall systems and conditioned for comfort.
“The breezeway is oriented as close to north/south as we could get it,” says Tim. “And it does a fantastic job of ventilating the space. Our intention was that it be left open most of the time. One of our goals in the project was to make sure the family didn’t lock themselves into air-conditioned spaces.”
A skylight above brings in extra illumination, and the white shiplap throughout makes the space cheery and bright. “The breezeway is captured by screened porch on both sides,” says Dave, “so it’s not buggy. And the shiplap for us reinforced the concept that these are finely crafted rudimentary structures. It was important that local trades could do it without lots of supervision. The house was never going to be about drywall with no trim.”
“The breezeway floor is cedar with Eco-Stain—the same as the screened porch, so you feel you are in the dog run,” he continues. “The floor acts like a deck, sitting on sleepers. Underneath, there’s a sloped concrete subfloor to area drains. You could spray the whole room out, if you wanted. It can absorb the wear and tear of young kids and dogs.”
As bright and expansive as the breezeway space is, the living room is intimate, cool, and dark. Swathed in bold, rich colors (guided by the art-trained homeowner), it’s the antidote to glaring Texas sun and heat.
The owners selected Tim and Dave’s team precisely for their ability to balance the dual, opposing human needs for prospect and refuge and to manifest the Danish idea of hygge, or charm and comfort. Says Tim, “The rooms are just big enough to occupy and feel cozy. That dark interior is very cooling in the summer, but what’s interesting is, in the winter it’s warm. I happen to live in a historic house, and when I renovated it, I captured that quality. That’s the project that got them to hire us.”
Although the compound is decidedly contemporary, it strikes that soothing vintage tone through the use of simple but precise forms, time-honored rustic materials—rough-sawn cedar siding, Galvalume metal roofing, foundations clad in limestone, and wire-brushed Douglas fir floors in all but the breezeway room. The dark colors and what David Dalgleish affectionately calls the “granny wallpaper” also reinforce the feeling of an amorphous, timeless past.
“This is really Tim’s genius,” David says. “It’s a modern interpretation of a Texas dog-run house. The colors are bold, but they really harmonize. It was refreshingly simple to build, but the details are knife-edge. And it has that wow factor. I’ve been doing this since 1981 and I’ve seen a lot of creative geniuses, but nothing like this.”
Plans and Drawings
Architect: Tim Cuppett, AIA, and David Kilpatrick, AIA, Tim Cuppett Architects, Austin, Texas
Builder: David Dalgleish, Dalgleish Construction, Austin
Interior Designer: Homeowner with Adriana Chetty, Tim Cuppett Architects, Austin
Landscape Design: Rebecca Leonard, Lionheart Places, Austin
Project size: 3,600 square feet (conditioned space)
Site size: 2.8 acres
Construction cost: Withheld
Photography: Whit Preston, Paul Finkel (master bath)
HVAC: Mitsubishi Mini-splits
Kitchen Sink: ROHL
Lighting, Exterior: Tech Lighting, Bowman 4
Lighting, Interior: Circa Lighting, Rejuvenation, Wyatt Warehouse Pendant
Paints, Exterior: Eco-Stain
Paints, Interior: Sherwin-Williams
Refrigerator: KitchenAid, Smeg
Roofing: Corrugated Galvalume
Tile: Travis Tile
Toilets: American Standard
Tubs: Duravit, Victoria + Albert (master)
Vent Hood: Vent-A-Hood
Wallpaper: Voutsa (pantry), Ellie Cashman (dressing room)
Window Systems: Western Window Systems
Wine Refrigerator: U-Line