Tucked Into the Trees

Quiet. Disciplined. Understated. Those are the words Heather McKinney, principal and founder of McKinney York Architects, uses to describe the 3,425-square-foot,three-bedroom, three-bathroom home her firm designed which was selected for this year’s AIA Austin Homes Tour.

Set back from the street in Austin’s Highland Park West, subtly tucked beneath a canopy of live oaks, the home is a perfect fit for both its tree-shaded site and homeowners, a retiring couple relocating from Houston to Austin. After purchasing the property, located high on a ridge overlooking Lake Austin and the Pennybacker Bridge, the existing home proved ill-matched to the couple’s lifestyle.

The homeowners, both geologists with degrees from the University of Texas at Austin, were familiar with the work McKinneyYork Architects had done for the University’s Jackson School of Geosciences and hired the firm to design their permanent home.

The couple was initially intent on remodeling the existing home, but a significant study determined too many expensive changes were required to meet their needs. For example, the original house had deep porches at the front and back which shielded natural light from the main living spaces, which Will Wood, project architect for McKinney York Architects, says improving through renovation would have a costly cascading effect on other portions of the house. One of the features the couple most admired about the existing home was the way it was nestled neatly among the live oaks, and they wanted their new home to mimic that same feel –– remaining tucked in the trees with a subdued presence to the street.

“Our clients were excited about the setting of the home, which has expansive views, a deep lot with the house site set far back from the street, amazing groves of oaks and lovely dappled light,” says McKinney. “They wanted a house that would fit beautifully and simply into that magnificent setting and convey their own personalities throughout.”

The couple envisioned a quiet home that could accommodate their hobbies, their impressive art collection and their visiting friends and grown children. Design objectives ranged from higher ceilings and more wall space for displaying art to a better flow throughout the house.

“They were looking for a tailored, subtle home, which required a different approach to windows, trim, cabinetry — basically, all the details that make up a house,” says McKinney.

From form to the smallest detail, the project remained driven by two main themes: the surrounding trees and views and space to display their expansive art and book collections.

“The first driver — the trees — impacted the exact location of the house, which had to accommodate root systems of significant oaks,” says McKinney.

The desire to incorporate the trees into the design also suggested extensive glass to create a sense of transparency, light and connectivity to the surrounding landscape and views. Conversely, the vibrant art collection — 35 works comprising mostly School of Paris painters — called for ample galleries and walls.

“Balancing those two drivers produced a design that also reflects their inspiration,” says McKinney. “For example, the Shou Sugi Ban siding and skinny posts of the porch columns are inspired by the trees. The floating platforms of the porch and entry walk, as well as the bridged gallery in the south wing — levitated to give tree roots air and earth to grow —all reflect a desire to sit lightly on the site in deference to the trees. The paintings inspired floating walls and aligning walls on axis for dramatic art placement. Because the paintings are so lively, they dictated a subtle color and detail palette for the house and furnishings.”

Like the old house, the new home sits back from the street on the long lot in alignment with the neighbors. A heritage oak becomes the focal feature of the entry, the house wrapping three sides of the tree with the roofs designed to slip under its boughs and a courtyard that creates a sense of enclosure with a floating ribbon of cast-in-place concrete. The architects worked with arborists to create a more hospitable environment for the large heritage oak in the courtyard, placing the new foundations on the footprint of the original house where there were no tree roots and adding additional square footage on the south side of the courtyard by completely bridging over a critical root zone and floating the entry walk above the ground.

The long, narrow house facilitates natural light and breezes from multiple sides, and the rear of the house looks through several groves of oaks to views of Lake Austin and the 360 bridge. One of the home’s defining characteristics –– and one of McKinney’s favorite elements –– are the high clerestory windows that amplify the tree canopy views, accentuate the ceiling height and bounce light deeply into the house.

“There is a slight echo in their design to classic industrial sash windows and to inspirations like the Eames house,” McKinney says. “From the outside, especially looking at the house from the back lawn, the house ‘dissolves’ into the landscape because the windows reflect the grove of trees. At night, the lantern-like quality of the lit interiors is magical.”

While the design gravitates toward a contemporary aesthetic, its undertones remain warm and welcoming –– a mix of limestone, Shou Sugi Ban, Ipe floating decks and dark metal roofing that mimics the tree trunks define the exteriors while a minimal palette of white gallery-like walls, clean-lined builtins and pale rift and quarter-sawn oak floors create calm, uncluttered interiors.

“By intentionally downplaying these components of the house, it allows the landscaping and the art to complete the conversation,” says McKinney. “Once the art was installed and the landscaping completed, the warmth was fully realized.” As with many properties in West Austin, the home’s views lie to the west, which can often result in uncomfortable summer sunsets, explains Wood. “We were able to nestle the house and back porch into a row of oaks that shaded the westfacing glass of the living room, allowing a great view without the need for window treatments of any kind,” he says.

Landscape designer Tim Benton of Land Restoration created a cohesiveness with the overall design, remaining sparse in his selection of plant materials to reinforce the quiet character of the place.

“Personally — and I never thought I would say this about a project in Central Texas — one of my favorite parts of the landscape design is the way the trees emerge from a perfect pelt of green grass,” says McKinney. “It feels very Zen and uncluttered. The planters in the entry courtyard are raised to give a sense of safety to the floating walkways and to separate the interesting plants from the simplicity of the gravel, the mountain laurels and the majestic oak.”

But in a home like this, it’s difficult to pick a favorite. McKinney loves the way the ceilings meet the walls –– if you look closely, there is a small reveal which “lifts” the ceilings and makes them float, a very quiet detail designed by Wood and expertly executed by builder Paul Balmuth. She’s also fond of the bookshelves in the gallery with their peek-a-boo windows looking out to a single tree. But then again, there is the set of sliding walls in the study which dilate or close up based on the desire for privacy. The hidden television next to the fireplace rises by remote control so it doesn’t distract from the views or the art. And of course, the sunlight that pours into the house, connecting it with the landscape and views and enhancing the quality of the space.

The new home’s well-edited design and ability to blend into the site and coexist with the trees gives it a timeless feel, as if

it has always been there. “It was designed to be disciplined, quiet and in harmony with the trees and the art,” explains McKinney. 

ARCHITECT McKinney York Architects

512.476.0201 | Mckinneyyork.com

BUILDER PB Fine Construction

512.413.6416 | Pbconstruction.net

LANDSCAPE Land Restoration

512.989.14788 | Landrestorationtx.com