Urban houses need to respond to the warp and weft of their neighborhoods—the prevailing context and the conditions of their sites. In the case of this up-and-coming neighborhood in East Austin, Texas, the dominant context is a fulsome canopy of leafy trees. There are houses nearby, of course, but they are a motley assortment of humble bungalows and densely packed developer speculative houses. That left Matt Fajkus, AIA, and project manager Sarah Wassel more elbow room for invention, as long as the house they designed tipped a hat to the neighboring gabled roofs.
The client on the project is a longtime acquaintance—a savvy Realtor who handled the deal for the firm’s office space—with the courage of his convictions and an innovative urban program. He wanted his new house to evoke the warmth of a vacation cabin, complete with central hearth and closely connected indoor/outdoor spaces. Although single, he asked for a bedroom count that would please his bank and local real estate comps, adding up to about 2,500 square feet of living space. Oh, and he requested a separate, 500-square-foot, self-contained accessory dwelling unit (ADU). The entire program had to wedge onto a 6,316-square-foot lot and do so with considerable architectural appeal.
While the main house is layered with small delights, the ADU is pared to the simple necessities of full-time habitation—one bedroom, one bath, a kitchen, a small interior living space, plus a compact outdoor space. Designed to be highly flexible, it will serve initially as a source of rental income, but it could easily morph into a home office or home-based business, caregiver quarters, or a guesthouse.
Because he had owned a rental unit next to his principal residence previously, the client understood well his threshold for privacy and separation. Accordingly, there’s actually a little less privacy in this arrangement than a newbie client might have asked for. There’s proximity in the client’s parking area, located by the unit’s entrance, and also in the unit’s outdoor courtyard space, placed hard by the terrace for the main house. “Some people might feel strange about parking by the ADU,” says Sarah. “But he’s comfortable with what it means to max out the density—to sacrifice some privacy for proximity.”
Currently, a large, amply landscaped planter provides visual separation for the courtyard. So, if the client or a future owner wished to integrate the ADU and its outdoor areas to serve the main residence, only minimal effort would be required.
No matter what the peculiarities of program, designing urban houses is always a dance of privacy and propinquity, further complicated by haphazard lot configurations. “East Austin is full of unique conditions of lots—ones with different sizes and geometries,” Matt explains. “The area was developed before municipal jurisdiction over construction. Some lots that are grandfathered are considered too small to build on. Our challenge was to optimize this lot on the main street and the alley and determine for the client whether the trees were an asset or a liability.”
As it turns out, the trees were a major asset, not only for their natural properties as summer shading for the house, but also as catalysts for breaking the street grid of rigid, boxlike buildings. The name “Hewn House” comes from the idea of a mundane block of wood sculpted into something more artful and compelling. Clad in knotty, tongue-and-groove cedar—a common material in Austin, according to Sarah, and one that satisfied the cabin-loving client—the house appears carved into its dynamic, faceted shape.
“Without the trees, the house would have had a regular rectangular plan, like a simple cabin,” Sarah explains. “But we had to sort of fracture that base rectangular plan into planes that pass by each other. Where the house and pergola meet, the angles reflect the remnants of punching those two parts past each other.”
“The tree canopies work in our favor,” Matt continues. “They blossom in summer for shade, and shed in winter to let in light.” With their sun control in the mix, the team could eliminate some overhangs and focus on articulating the façade with subtle material changes and plan elements that are legible in elevation.
Although many homes in the area are single story, the density of the program here meant adding a partial second story. Those two extra bedrooms are located up, sharing a bath between them. The front guest bedroom opens to a balcony, creating a punch-out that lightens the street façade. That balcony segues into the stair hall, as the front elevation pulls back from a majestic existing tree.
“We came to the massing early on,” says Sarah. “And then we went through a number of different alignments of windows. Ultimately, we came back to a regular alignment, with openings stacked above one another. But the elevations were lacking a little bit of interest and movement. So we placed those strips of charred cedar between the windows to shake up the way the alignments were connecting. They make the openings seem larger than they actually are.”
To complete the urban cabin theme, the team worked in the large chimney. Clad in iron spot brick, which glistens from integral iron salts, the chimney is a focal point on the street façade and the great room interior. It pierces the canted roofline of the central living space with a jaunty, almost midcentury modern demeanor. Inside, the brick spreads out from the chimney to form a long, elevated hearth, flanked by large window openings.
Encouraged by the client to design a simple, cozy space, the architects kept the great room to a reasonable size and height. To eliminate to need for single-use hallway space, circulation is kept to the edge of the room and aligns with the front entry and master bedroom wing.
Floors in the great room are concrete for vacation-home ease of living, but the ceiling is warmed by wood. Clerestories bring light in from the sides, while preserving privacy from neighbors. A sliding door system connects to an adjacent south-facing terrace, partially shaded by a pergola and a large cedar elm tree.
The floor plan is optimized for one-level living, with all key rooms opening to outdoor space, including the master suite at the front of the house. Even the master bathroom opens to the outdoors and a private, al fresco shower bathed in south sun.
A small lot, a complex program of multiple structures, and a collection of handsome, mature trees—these are the intriguing and challenging ingredients of custom urban houses. Matt’s firm loves this kind of work, in addition to large-scale commercial projects and small-scale sculptural installations. “We pride ourselves on being nimble,” he says. “The larger idea is that, ultimately, we are problem solvers.”
Plans and Drawings
ARCHITECT: Matt Fajkus, principal in charge; Sarah Wassel, project manager; David Birt; Matt Fajkus Architecture, Austin
BUILDER: Capstone Custom Homes, Dripping Springs, Texas
PROJECT SIZE: 2,509 square feet
SITE SIZE: 0.145 acre
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHY: Charles Davis Smith, FAIA
BATHROOM VENTILATION: Broan
CLADDING: Western red cedar; knotted cedar; stucco
COUNTERS: Tectura Designs terrazzo; custom mesquite butcher block
DECKING: Western red cedar
DOOR HARDWARE: Baldwin Hardware
FAUCETS: Hansgrohe (powder room); California Faucets (kitchen)
FIREPLACE: Acme iron spot bricks
KITCHEN APPLIANCES: KitchenAid
PAINT: Sherwin-Williams (interior)
ROOFING: Standing seam metal
ROOF WINDOWS: VELUX (ADU bathroom)
SINKS: Blanco SILGRANIT (kitchen); Lacava (powder room)
WINDOWS: Milgard (picture windows)
WINDOW WALL SYSTEMS: Western Window Systems