On a steep Hill Country cliffside just outside of Austin, a cleverly-constructed contemporary home floats above the canyon and nestles among the trees.
Inspired by the Case Study Houses of the 1950’s and the work of modernist architects such as Charles and Ray Eames, Pierre Koenig, Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, Austin-based architect Winn Wittman had to think outside of the box to create this 2,600-square-foot home constructed on land previously deemed unbuildable.
“This is a very steep lot,” says Wittman. “It was initially thought too difficult to build on. It became apparent the house would have to float upon piers because the ground was dropping off so dramatically we didn’t want to simply build a huge foundation. We wanted to impact the site as minimally as possible.”
The modern, low-roofed home hovers lightly over the ravine, eyeballing the nature preserve below. Five steel piers support the bulk of the wood, stone and glass structure, a more sustainable and cost-effective alternative to building an enormous concrete slab. Wittman wanted to use as few piers as possible, but a portion of the hillside also had to be carved into in order to accommodate a street-level garage above and a spacious studio down below. Builder Richard White of Abode Homes says that out of all the homes he has constructed, this one required the most extensive structural engineering.
“On most lots you find a flat spot to build on, but not this one,” says White. “The site was ridiculous –– the lot was literally a cliff we built on. We brought in dirt to build the driveway then carved into the side of the hill at least 12 feet top to bottom and maybe 30 feet into the hill.”
But looking at the home now, it appears the construction challenges were well worth the result. White refers to the modern, mid-century home tucked into the trees as a “hidden little gem.” Appropriately named the Ravine House for the ravine the home straddles, a beautiful juxtaposition exists –– the portion of the house attached to the hillside remains grounded while the rest of the home soars from the hillside and floats lightly above the valley. Because the modest home is set on piers, extra space below will allow for an additional build-out if ever desired in the future.
Efforts to make the home as green as possible were constantly pursued by the clients, architect and builder from the project’s 2010 beginnings to its completion in 2012. The home’s design was dictated by the land, growing organically on-site through numerous site meetings and collaborations with landscapers and arborists to ensure the creek and surrounding trees would be impacted as little as possible.
The homeowners, an environmentally conscious couple, loved the idea of living simply and treading lightly on the land. Trees that brushed up to the house that would have normally been cut down were left alone and pruned back, creating a treehouse effect when looking out through the floor-to-ceiling windows or standing on the decks wrapping the home’s exterior. Throughout the building process, Wittman says the homeowners were interested in knowing how green a product was and where it came from so both he and White sought to use local materials and make sustainable selections such as the formaldehyde-free stained wood cabinetry and recycled quartz countertops in the kitchen sourced from TreeHouse, South Austin’s eco-friendly, smart building store.
“We wanted to make the house as healthy as possible,” says Wittman. “We didn’t use anything with particleboard or MDF, and we used low VOC paint throughout.”
Wittman originally intended to use Ipe throughout the home, but that proved to be cost prohibitive so he utilized it only on the exterior decking and relied on domestic woods for the ceilings, sidings and interior floors –– a more sustainable alternative than using imported woods. In an effort to bring the surrounding nature inside, the same cyprus wood featured on the home’s exterior and soffits extend through the glass andinto the lower section of the interior ceiling while the flooring and floating stair treads are both American walnut.
Tankless heaters, low heat glass, spray foam insulation, a reflective flat roof and a high-efficiency air conditioning system make this three bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom home as energy-efficient as possible. In fact, Wittman says the homeowners’ monthly electric bills average under $100.
Aficionados of mid-century design, the creative couple filled the interior of their home with original vintage Danish and Scandinavian furnishings and called on well-known Austin designer Joel Mozersky to complete the look. Efforts were made to make use of existing materials whenever possible. In fact, one of Mozersky’s custom creations reused leftover walnut flooring planks to create a waterfall edge dining table over the existing kitchen island.
Wittman’s signature cohesion can be detected throughout the house –– the architect used similar finishes and lines from space to space as evidenced by the same recycled glass and stone countertops in the kitchen and master bath as well as homogeneous plumbing fixtures used for the home’s varioussinks and tubs.
“I generally like to continue materials throughout the house rather than using different materials in every room, especially in a small house,” says Wittman. “I like that continuity. It is cleaner.”
Eldorado Stone was chosen for the home’s exterior, a lightweight cast product which has a similar look to Texas Shellstone but is thinner and lighter, thus reducing the load on the steel structure that cantilevers out on the hillside. A mixture of Fleetwood windows and large steel-framed windows designed and fabricated on site give the home a glass-like feel.
“On those large panels of glass, you don’t see any exposed mullion,” says Wittman. “There is a seamless expression of glass that wraps continually around the house.”
The home looks out over the nature preserve, but its westand northwest-facing orientation posed a challenge due to the extreme solar exposure. Without wanting to sacrifice the views or reduce the amount of windows in the home, Wittman designed a large overhang to cut down on the light, glare and heat without hindering the property’s pristine panoramas.
Wittman and White say the design of the home was a harmonic process that grew organically on site, taking on a life of its own to create a timeless, modern aesthetic dictated by the land while minimally impacting it.“I like the simplicity of the house,” says Wittman. “There is nothing distracting about this home. It is timeless. I like to think that this home could be considered mid-century of the last century or it could be mid-century of the next century.”
For the clients, this home turned out to be the perfect refuge from their busy lives. “We got some great feedback from one of the owners,” says Wittman. “She gave up her office after they moved into this house because she said she would much rather work from home. She likes the feeling of being among the trees, sitting in the living room or on the deck and working from her laptop with a cup of coffee.”
ARCHITECT Winn Wittman Architecture
512.630.2724 | www.Winnwittman.com
BUILDER Abode Modern Home Building
512.848.4547 | www.Abodemodernhomes.com
DESIGNER Joel Mozersky Design
512.913.3732 | www.Joelmozersky.com