Case Study: Vale House by Furman + Keil Architects

Rollingwood lies west of downtown Austin, just outside city limits. Home to tree-lined streets, Zilker Park, and Ladybird Lake, it is a popular, older suburb of small lots developed in the mid-20th century. On a winding suburban street, this parcel was especially attractive because it backed up to a green belt and had a lovely stand of mature live oaks. Builder Matt Shoberg and his wife, a real estate agent, purchased it and hired Furman + Keil Architects to design a home for themselves and their four young boys.  

This was the second home the firm had designed for the couple, whose architectural tastes, not surprisingly, were very marketable. Before they had a chance to move in, they were getting offers they couldn’t refuse and sold it to another buyer. Still, says architect Philip Keil, AIA, the house was designed specifically for them. They liked large spaces for family and entertaining, so the house is a roomy 6,800 square feet. The trick to fitting it neatly on the small corner lot was to take an urban planning approach, with a neighborhood-friendly front and a floor plan that turns inward. 

Privacy was a concern because the house is bounded by two streets and a service road, and there is a close neighbor to the north. Given the imposed deep setback, the architects pushed outdoor activity toward the street, carving out landscaped space under the oaks that acts as a front porch. “It’s a great trick-or-treat neighborhood,” Philip says. The U-shaped house then wraps around a courtyard to provide privacy from the streets.

“The challenge was to create a suburban feeling with an urban-sized lot; we danced around that line between the two,” Philip says. The house’s discreet massing minimizes its size on the street. “They said they wanted a modern farmhouse look, and we drilled down to what it was about that they liked,” Philip says. “We realized they were drawn to prismatic shapes like the Monopoly house. We ran with that on the front façade, a classic gable form with two windows” that defines the front corner and is joined to a lower-pitched, one-story entry volume. The land slopes away toward the back of the lot, which allowed the design team to shoehorn a second story into the back of the high-pitched roofline facing the alley. 

The resulting floor plan contains the living spaces, primary bedroom suite, office, and guest quarters on the first floor, all circling around a courtyard containing a pool and a covered terrace with a fireplace. “The courtyard allowed us to really open up the interior to light from the northeast and southeast, and have the spaces feel airy on the inside,” Philip says. As a bonus, it also makes a focal point of the backyard’s specimen oak. The three-car garage, a hinge between the public spaces and the primary suite, is conveniently accessed from the alley. Above the main bedroom, the second floor contains three en-suite bedrooms plus a sitting room, game room, and gym/media room. And atop that wing, a third-story deck provides views over Zilker Park to downtown Austin. “We added it mid-design,” Philip says. “In the end they couldn’t resist having that view of the city they knew was up there.”

Multidimensional

In developing the interior, Philip was inspired by Charles Moore’s idea of a geode, where a rather plain exterior opens to reveal a rich and expressive interior. The front façade’s Texas cream limestone flows along the interior entry wall and reappears on three fireplaces and a kitchen backsplash. Materials are simple and light-colored: concrete floors on the ground level, hemlock ceiling beams, and white oak for cabinetry and second-story floors, while carbon steel provides accents inside and out.

Multilevel interiors follow the grade of the terrain. The entry hall is the highest point on the main floor. “Coming in the front door, the patio’s Lueders limestone bleeds into the entry hall floor and continues all the way through the guest suite” to the left, Philip says. The bedroom and sitting room were designed to provide a quiet location where the owners’ parents could enjoy an extended stay.

To the right, two steps down from the entry, is a large, open living and dining area. “They are a big entertaining family, so it was important to have flow from different aspects of the house,” Philip says. The bar, tucked between the dining and living room zones, becomes a hub of activity for people standing and chatting during a party. “The last house we designed for them had a standup bar right at the entryway that magnetically drew everyone, and this time they wanted to pull people into the heart of the house,” Philip says. “It became the program space that connects the indoor and outdoor activities.” This was achieved with a hinged panel on the steel window system that opens, allowing bar service to the rear porch. 

Inside, vaulted roof forms are rendered in sheetrock, allowing light to play on the smooth surfaces. They contrast with the wood boards and beams of the flat-ceiling portions around the courtyard. “We inverted the idea of expressing the structure in a vaulted space,” Philip says. “The rhythm of the structure beams carries through from the kitchen and bar area to the outdoor porch.” The straight-grain, honey-colored hemlock beams lend a warm contrast to the darkened steel of the thin window mullions and long-span beams. 

Owner/builder Matt Shoberg appreciated the design’s combination of straightforward construction and dynamic lines. “They put quite a bit of structural design into it, but the gabled roof and large ceiling expanses was an efficient way to build because it had a typical form,” he says. “The structural steel was integrated with the steel windows so it looks like one unit, and our trim carpenters hand-formed the structural hemlock beams on site.”

Behind the kitchen range wall, four steps lead down to a mudroom fitted with wood cubbies next to the garage, where a peekaboo window opens a sight line to the skylit kitchen. An office tucked between the garage and main bedroom is seamlessly wrapped in vertical hemlock siding that conceals a closet door. Upstairs, the kids’ common area, bedrooms, game room, and gym reside under the gabled roofline. The delight of secret nooks plays out in a loft inside the tall gable geometry, accessed by a ladder in the shared boys’ bedroom. And the top of the main stair continues up to the third-story roof deck pointed toward downtown Austin.

Sympatico

The house’s apertures respond to its solar orientation, helping to fuse the site and structure. Its more solid street façades face south and west, thereby blocking the hottest sun, while the open side of the house invites even northeastern light. Exterior materials, too, place the house firmly in its region: Texas limestone in the front, stucco in the back, and durable, light-colored metal roofs that repel the harsh sun. Under the shade of live oaks, gravel and stacked stone walls elegantly define the landscaped front “porch,” which contains a stone firepit.

Those harmonious relationships played out between the architects and owners as well. “Having the builder as the client is a good combo,” says Philip. “It’s one-stop shopping. They knew what they wanted aesthetically and programmatically, and what it would cost to pull it off. We were able to go right to it.” 

Matt agrees. “The neighborhood is great, and the lot backs up to a trailhead that goes to downtown Austin where there are running trails and kayaking. We have four sons, so we needed space and wanted a pool. Yet we had a half-acre lot with a setback and a tree right in the middle. Those conditions required creativity, and the architects did an awesome job.”


Image Gallery


Plans and Drawings


Vale House

Rollingwood, Texas

Architect: Philip Keil, AIA, principal in charge; Gary Furman, FAIA, Troy Miller, Jamie Kerensky, and Dawson Williams, project staff, Furman + Keil Architects, Austin, Texas

Builder: Shoberg Homes, Austin

Interior designer: Wendy Williamson Design, Austin

Landscape architect: LandWest Design Group, Austin

Project size: 8,936 square feet, including unconditioned space

Site size: 0.4 acre

Construction cost: $585 per square foot

Photography: Dror Baldinger, FAIA


Key Products:

Cabinetry: Custom by Buda Woodworks, Buda, Texas

Cooktop/Ovens: Wolf

Doors/Windows: Rehme Steel Windows & Doors

Faucets: Corsano by California Faucets

Garage doors: Clopay

HVAC: Mitsubishi

Landscape gates: Viking Fence

Lighting: Lightology, Tudo & Co.

Microwave: Wolf

Outdoor grill: Wolf

Paints: Sherwin-Williams, Benjamin Moore

Refrigerator/Freezer: Sub-Zero

Roof windows/skylights: VELUX

Security systems: AllSafe Security

Sinks: Kohler

Toilets: Kohler

Window shading systems: Texas Sun & Shade

Wine refrigerator: Sub-Zero


Full-Size Images