What is the value of an architect? Houses like Sugar Shack by Alterstudio make the answer crystal clear. Imagine this half-acre undulating lot in the hands of a speculative builder with a stock plan. What gyrations of foundation and stair design would have ensued to reconcile the contours of the topography? Both the lot and the house would have suffered deep compromises in livability and aesthetics—and, yes, in value, too—had a generic solution been imposed. But Kevin Alter’s clients knew they needed skilled design help to make the most of their property and their program, and the resulting house turned every deficit into an asset.
Located in the West Lake Hills area of Austin, this post-war neighborhood of limestone ranch houses is close to the Colorado River and the leading edge of Texas Hill Country. Its proximity to downtown and green space makes it a desirable place to live, notwithstanding the tricky topography. “The site was so interesting with its contours and the mature live oaks,” says Kevin. “But it also has close neighbors, so we had to reconcile the contradictory desires for privacy and openness to nature. That’s what architecture is so good at—resolving contradictions.”
Some architects might have solved these problems with a complicated composition of structure and volume. The clients, however, were adamant in their desire for a smaller house—with main living space on just one level. “They didn’t want big rooms, and they didn’t want a lot of redundant space. They wanted their young children close,” Kevin recalls. “In a way, it was kind of a Midcentury program.”
Openness and Privacy
So the team took a few cues from those neighboring Midcentury dwellings and designed a seemingly simple box. Not so simply, they elevated the box on steel columns above the carport and torqued it along the site’s natural grade. Orienting the shorter end toward the street and pointing the broad side deep into the lot allows the house to capture the high, flat side of the property for a private courtyard and pool area and provides a wooded vista as the ground drops off toward the river.
With the main level elevated, the clients gained some lower-level space at minimal extra cost, including a “rumpus room,” as Kevin calls it, and some storage and utility space. There are no interior stairs between the main and lower level, and arrivals at the carport must proceed up a flight of covered exterior stairs to the family entry. Even with the small exertion required, it’s a lovely arrival experience. The stairs are flanked by a screen of white powder-coated steel rods along the exterior of the house and by a glass wall along the interior. The rods block views at certain angles and allow them at others, serving as a “series of veils” into the house. And when the interior lights shine through at night, the whole house appears to float above its terrain, answering the play of light and shadow from the sinewy live oak trees nearby.
“It’s beautiful to see shadows come in and reflect off the glass in streaks of light,” says Kevin. “I can’t do anything as beautiful as those incredible live oaks, but I can engage them.” And the box that appears simple but holds numerous surprises? It too has inspirations and associations: “If you asked a layperson to describe a Modern building, they would probably mention a white box. But I think of modern painting, like a portrait by Braque. One where you see the front of a woman’s face and the side at the same time. That’s the version of Modernism I love—the simplicity of line, but animated by reflections and shadows, vistas and materials.”
Like a Braque painting, Sugar Shack’s complexity reveals itself as you step closer in. Window openings hug the parapet, Shou Sugi Ban cedar siding pops out from the building plane in battens, a perimeter French drain is an elegant lattice of cedar grille, and a privacy wall is board-formed concrete. All of these carefully executed details add their own layers of shadow, depth, and texture. “The building has a certain reading at a distance,” says Kevin. “But it animates when you get closer. And even closer, you start to see the complexity of the Shou Sugi Ban. And the French drains, they’re a part of the composition, too. I did a lot of studio art when I was in college, and what I like about architecture is that it’s professional. We conspire with things like French drains.”
Inside and Outside
The interiors continue the dance of openness and privacy, light and shadow. Because of the home’s compact size and artful torque between kitchen and living room, main family areas extend the full width of the plan and usher in multiple exposures of daylight.
Large window systems align with protected exterior views, connecting occupants with carefully curated slices of the suburban lot. “We went to some effort to have the windows extend beyond the ceiling and below the floor,” Kevin explains. “The effect is a little unnerving, because the way we judge distance is by the window frame. But the space carries out more dramatically this way. And practically, it lets us hide shade pockets. It also undermines the boxiness of the building and makes it more dynamic. On the ravine side of the property, the clients can sit at the window and see into a bird’s nest. Overall, the space isn’t huge, but it opens up in ways that are key.”
The exterior’s white steel becomes touches of mill-finished black steel inside—in the fireplace surround, the ceiling lights in the kitchen, the light switch strip in the kitchen cabinets, and an accent wall here and there. Unlike true Midcentury houses with their thin walls and light structure, walls here are thickened with storage, adding depth and solidity to the interiors. Floors and built-in cabinets are fumed white oak in a straight, rich grain, segueing artfully into the level-five surfaces throughout.
The master suite raises the standard even further, indulging in a bit of private luxury. Here, the palette is one of luscious, ethereal whites and smooth, unified planes. “We try to get rid of corridors and doors as much as possible, so for the master suite there are sliding wall panels rather than a hole in the wall. As you turn the corner and proceed to the master bath, it gets quite luxurious—materials and finishes that are not necessary but are pleasurable, like small tiles that can make a curve or a beautiful tub,” says Kevin. “The master bath is more of an insular room, an intimate internal space. It’s the figured space while the other ones are more modern.”
Included and Excluded
The value of good residential design derives not just from what’s included in the final building, but what is excluded. The team chose not to follow neighborhood tradition and place the house crosswise on the site, they did not bring cars right up to the main living level, and they did not maximize the amount of house on the lot. The result of excluding these very standard approaches to single-family residential design is a house that enhances its site and the lives of its occupants and that engages the delights of its surroundings—both manmade and natural.
“I like buildings that continue to intrigue and offer discoveries,” Kevin says. “À la Corbu, they should offer an architectural promenade where you’re not just walking through space, but always making new discoveries.”
Alterstudio thrives on everyday architecture, where beauty, function, and budget infuse and inform the final experience. “This isn’t sculpture. We work within a normative architectural system and change it where necessary,” he concludes. “It’s one thing to do a glass house on a large piece of property, and another to do a house on a suburban lot. This isn’t a big house and it’s not an extremely expensive one, but its greatest luxury is in being just one room wide.”
Plans and Drawings
Sugar Shack Residence
ARCHITECT: Principals Kevin Alter, Ernesto Cragnolino, Tim Whitehill; project architect Daniel Shumaker, Alterstudio Architecture, Austin, Texas
BUILDERS: John Caldwell, Austin; Redbud Custom Homes, Austin
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Duffy Engineering, Austin
PROJECT SIZE: 3,572 square feet (conditioned)
SITE SIZE: .47 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: $290 per square foot
PHOTOGRAPHER: Casey Dunn Photography
ROOF WINDOWS: VELUX
ROOF DRAINS: Zurn
MOISTURE BARRIERS: Tyvek Fluid Applied WRB
HVAC: Mitsubishi City Multi S-Series
HUMIDITY CONTROL: Ultra Aire Dehumidifier
COUNTERTOP SURFACES: Silestone
FIREPLACE: EcoSmart Fire
DOOR HARDWARE: Emtek
TILE: Artistic Tile, Ann Sacks, Eleganza Tiles, Interceramic, Daltile
COOKING APPLIANCES: Miele
VENT HOOD: Zephyr
LIGHTING CONTROL: Lutron
LIGHTING: Halo, WAC, Texas Fluorescents
WINDOW SHADES: ShadeWorks
DECORATIVE LIGHTING: Lambert & FIls Atomium pendant
PAINT: Benjamin Moore Super White