A birder’s sanctuary

When ornithologist Tom Taylor needed an office space on his rural property near Fredericksburg, Texas, architect Jon Pankratz saw the opportunity to create something truly original. Taylor is a book collector with a special interest in ornithology. Pankratz drew on his knowledge of wild bird habits, homes and migratory patterns to develop an environment specific to Taylor’s interests.

Ornithology is the branch of zoology that deals with the systematic study of birds. As a bird lover Taylor travels all over the world to enjoy rare and interesting species, and his research has been published in books relating to the history of ornithology. He also collects bird books and prints, usually one-of-a-kind or handpainted originals, which are extremely valuable. The planned office needed to be an inspiring space for the birder and safe home to his precious art objects.

Design freedom

Pankratz was commissioned to create a usable office in rural Fredericksburg so Taylor could conduct research from his residence, which speaks more to his work than an urban office. Taylor’s home abuts a wildlife habitat with a dry creek that fills with water in rainy periods and draws many species of birds. The office sits close enough to this habitat so that wild birds perched in the trees could be admired from the space.

“I was given free reign to do my thing so I thought it would be fun to design a structure and space that played on a real birdcage to create an environment for him to work in,” Pankratz says.

Working with the birdcage in mind, Pankratz needed to incorporate details that would give the aesthetic appeal he wanted but would also construct easily. “The biggest challenge was finding the right building envelope so I could create the right skin and have some detail to it,” he says.

Working on this relatively small project provided the architect with a keen opportunity to work whimsical elements into the plans and truly cater to the client’s passions. Pankratz says he enjoyed designing this structure because “in a smaller project, you can put in more design details as it‘s difficult to accomplish the details in a large project.”

Enhancing with material

The 17 ft. by 17 ft. detached structure was planned to sit approximately 400 yards from the main house so the two buildings could be mutually exclusive and did not need to complement each other. This autonomy allowed the architect to express a unique vision for his client with components as rare as Taylor’s merchandise.

Pankratz selected materials that enhance his design and also blend naturally into the wildlife. While the materials chosen are simple and practical, they offer a sophisticated appearance when combined together.

The design called for grid wire to surround the structure and emulate an authentic birdcage, and metal birds hanging from the grids. “We picked five or six indigenous birds of Texas and I had a metal craftsman water jet the profiles,” Pankratz says. “We then placed them in the grid wire so they would spin in the wind and cast bird shadows on the structure.” The bird species crafted from metal include cardinal, hummingbird and woodpecker.

For the skin of the inner envelope, Pankratz specified a 3/8-in. cement board product in sage green to blend with the existing live oaks and nestle into the environment’s organic coloration. The design features reveals which are aluminum extrusions that create joints. These aluminum trim pieces were applied to the base plywood walls, then the cement board panels simply slid into them to create a waterproof joint. Aluminum screws, while functional, also added an interesting highlight to the trim work.

Cinderblock pillars flank the opening of this birdcage to produce a grand entrance chamber into Taylor’s sanctuary. A metal shelf, or perch, sits atop the columns to act as a protective overhang for the entryway.

Birdwatching

For the 10-ft. high interior space, Pankratz chose utilitarian yet appealing materials including white gypsum board walls and waxed concrete floors. Since Taylor’s bird books and prints required protection from the damaging sunlight effects, a complete wall of simple, inexpensive cabinetry was installed.

Windows positioned on all four sides of the building allow the client to view the exterior metal bird profiles and watch actual live birds from within his office. Four sets of four awning windows provide the office with light and breeze. Two of the rows are at ceiling height and two at eye level. Additionally, the exterior grid wire protects the windows from potential wind-borne hazards.

Project success

The birdcage sits on a sloping site so after finishing the area with gravel, final landscaping included covering the site with natural grass and native plant materials. The office now blends seamlessly into the surrounding area and acts as a sanctuary within a sanctuary.

With a good idea of the cost of construction, Pankratz secured bids from three builders he had worked with in the past. Richard Laughlin, CGB, CGP, president, Laughlin Homes and Restoration was awarded the job. The working relationship and trust that Pankratz and Laughlin had developed over past projects enhanced the seamless flow of the job.

Selecting Laughlin also added a level of indigenousity to the project. Pankratz, Laughlin and Taylor are all based in the Fredericksburg area so communication and travel were greatly simplified.

Pankratz takes great pride in this original design and his client’s enjoyment of the space. He says, “It was one of the most enjoyable small projects I have ever done; a real jewel box.”

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