Mid-Century Modern

From Northern California down across the Sunbelt to Austin, Texas, the allure of post-and-beam styled homes from the middle of the previous century seems to grow with each passing year. In Northern California, homes designed and built by Joe Eichler from 1949 to 1974 have higher resale value than other homes of comparable size and location. The forward looking, completely original style of these mid-century ranch homes are now hip backdrops in movies and television commercials.

In central Austin, near the campus of the University of Texas, the owners of a 1945 mid-century home cared enough about the original character of their home to sensitively add a 658-sq.-ft second floor for a new master bedroom suite. (Many other similarly sized homes in their neighborhood had long since been replaced with McMansions.) As part of the project, the owners also sought to relocate the front entry of the home in order to separate it from the head of the driveway.

For the design solutions, the couple turned to Mark Lind of CG&S Design-Build of Austin who took inspiration from the home’s many Japanese design themes. Near the front entry there was a stained glass depiction of Mt. Fuji. In the existing first-floor master suite there was a custom-made canvas door for the closet. Lind took these cues and extrapolated on them for use in both the second-floor addition and the new front entry.

A glass lantern

Mid-century modern homes are distinguished by their gently sloping rooflines that extend side-to-side from a center ridge beam. In many such homes the rafter tails extend outward to create wide eaves. They are also characterized by mini-courtyards in front that serve as a gateway to the front door. They also allow for light to penetrate toward the center of the home. In the case of this home, the owners felt that the U-shaped courtyard was too close to the terminus of their driveway. They wanted to move the entry to occupy a space several feet to the right on the front elevation. The challenge was that a huge masonry fireplace existed in the spot where the new entry ideally would be placed. For Mark Lind, the goal was to preserve and enhance the original courtyard and to add something new on front that would work well with the masonry fireplace, which was ditched to make way for the new entry.

“People here in Texas don’t really use fireplaces that often,” notes Lind. “It is more to add ambiance during the holidays. So the owners were willing to get rid of it. When we took out the fireplace, a lot of room opened up as a result. So we took that out and I came up with this concept of an all-glass room that was the entry vestibule attached to the front of the house. It is kind of like a Japanese lantern. It turns out that when we picked the light fixtures we chose this kind of Japanese lantern look that authenticated the motif. We also kept some of the existing masonry there.”

To create the all-glass front vestibule, the main ridge beam of the house needed to be extended forward from its original location by more than 10 ft. A new post was added in front to support the new beam. And, as is frequently done in Japanese architecture, the post was anchored to a granite rock. This helps keep the lower end of a post from rotting. Low-slung rafters matching the original pitch of the roofline cap the glass box underneath. The rafters extend out to the carport on one side. But a window scheme that required custom-sized windows running along the underside of the roof, really seemed to accent the overall massing of the roofline.

“If you are talking about challenges, the windows were one of them,” says Lind. “I drew a scheme where I showed the windows being squared off at the top and some framing between the top of the windows and the underside of the roof. But I also showed them this scheme where you take the windows right up to the underside of the roof. And of course, they liked this one thankfully. It proved to be extremely time-consuming and took a lot of labor. In order to have the windows come up to the underside of the roof, they had to set the bottom window, then come in and do some framing. And then come in and set the top window. It took a lot of time to do it. It is a fantastic look. It is a nice characteristic of mid-century modern. It is something that people really don’t do anymore because it is just too easy to put a header over a window.”

Second-floor master suite

One of the primary reasons that people remodel is to accommodate changes in family composition. When kids come along, people add on or move. In this case, the couple with two college-age children were welcoming her mother to the house. The existing master suite on the first floor was converted to an in-law suite, and a back office space was converted into a craft room for their mother as well. The new master suite was for the owners.

Their original thought was to stack it on top of the front living room. But this was unworkable for a number of reasons, chiefly that there was really no good place to put the stairs in that scenario. It also would have been problematic from a massing standpoint. The one-story look of a mid-century modern would have been greatly compromised with a second story on the front. Thus it was decided the addition would be placed farther back on the house, above the existing master and a first-floor sunroom.

The staircase was tucked into a spot formerly occupied by the first-floor master bedroom closet. This solution seemed to flow naturally, with the bottom landing opening on two sides to the dining room and living room combination.

To make way for the extra loads above, new beefed-up posts anchored to new footings were added to the existing sunroom.

Then there was the matter of how to preserve the gently sloping interior ceilings. “One of the challenges was that they wanted to keep the sloped ceiling on the inside of the first floor under this addition,” notes Lind. “So our addition had to sit up above the original roofline. And that was a little challenging because usually you tear the structure out and you put new floor joists in. This was one of those areas where we had to make some special provisions to keep the original character of the house. We did not want to go in and change the original character of the house, which is what attracted the owners to us in the first place.”

Corner windows

Lind says that he did not consciously set out to design corner windows into so many places in the house. It just sort of happened that way, but he is very glad he did it. In addition to the corner windows featured in the “Japanese lantern” that is the new front entry, Lind added corner windows in the stairs, the study, the bathroom and the master bedroom.

“I was not even consciously doing this, but it made such a big difference,” says Lind. “I am trying to do it a lot more. It really just opens the whole room up, much more than just one wall with a whole bunch of windows in it. The whole second floor was 658 sq. ft. So it is really quite small, but it is a good example of a not-so-big-house and Sarah Susanka’s design principles. That is what this is. It is a fairly small house. And it is a small addition. But the clients did not need more room. Again, by using the corner windows to open the rooms up to the exterior, it feels larger than it really is up there. There is a great view from the master bedroom of the University of Texas tower through the trees. We captured a great view up there.”

One of the great ironies of preserving this gem-like mid-century house was the difficulty Lind encountered adhering to a new anti-McMansion zoning law. If it had been torn down, it would have been easier to get the exact space the clients wanted, but because they were adding height to the home, they had to meet new guidelines, says Lind. Because the second-floor addition was, in effect, built above the existing slope of the roof, an 8-ft. plate was as high as they could go with the second-floor addition; even then a variance was required, which delayed the project.

“I think more than just meeting the letter of the law, we really met the spirit of it,” says Lind. “We tried to keep the lines of the existing house and augment and add to its character. Later, when we had a party at the house, the owner told me that people would stop their cars at the house and thank them for adding onto the home in this way and not just tearing it down.

“To me, that is high praise.”

Fast Facts About the Project:

  • Project name: Mid-Century Modern
  • Project location: Austin, Texas
  • Remodeler: CG&S Design-Build
  • Project team: Architect: Mark Lind
  • Project manager: Danny Scott
  • Photographer: Thomas McConnell
  • Completion date: December 2008
  • Project cost: $358,365
  • Age of home: Built in 1945
  • Project description: Additions and modifications to this postwar home greatly enhanced the functional area of the home, but did so in a manner that is in keeping with the home’s original scale, materials and aesthetics. Rather than opting to change the underlying characteristics of the existing home, it was decided early on to maintain its mid-century modern qualities and Japanese undertones.

Specified Products

  • Bedroom flooring: Tuftex Mojave Dusk & Hickory Tweed Carpet
  • Cabinets: Custom Bamboo Cabinetry by Amazonia Cabinetry
  • Countertops: Nocce Travertine
  • Entry/downstairs flooring: California Gold Slate Wainscot & Splash Tile: Daltile-Fabrique Gris & White
  • Exterior siding: Cedar
  • Fixtures: Kohler
  • HVAC equipment: Trane
  • Interior Doors: BMC West
  • Lighting fixtures: Hubberton Forge
  • Master bath fittings: Hansgrohe, Grohe, Newport Brass
  • Paints: Kelly-Moore Paint
  • Shower floor: Emser White Pebbles
  • Stairs: Teregren Signature Naturals Bamboo Treads & California Gold Slate Risers
  • Windows: Ram Industries

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