Double Exposure

The primary challenge of this project along the riverfront in San Antonio was to nearly double the size of a beautiful masonry-style house without overwhelming the narrow site on which it sits. In addition, the owners wanted to maintain the home’s historic look, which was in keeping with the surrounding King William district. The homeowners turned to Heather McKinney, FAIA, LEED AP, president of McKinney York Architects, for the design work. With some careful planning and ingenuity, McKinney was able to make the remodeled home and addition an unqualified success.

Work on the home was done in two phases. McKinney York Architects built the first phase 10 years ago when the homeowners were newlyweds. As time went on and the family expanded, McKinney was asked to step in for phase two, a remodel to the original home and an addition.

McKinney loved doing the house with the homeowner the first time and was really excited to have the opportunity to come back and work on it again — to work on it, improve it and enlarge it. Not only did McKinney’s team and the homeowners know each other so much better at that point, but the clients also had a much better grip on how their life worked and would continue to work, so the team could plan for the house.

McKinney and the owner, who was not entirely satisfied with some elements of the home that no longer worked for the family, explored the idea of opening up some of the spaces toward the back of the home. This would become the center of the house during phase two. By pursuing a rear addition, McKinney sought to create a much larger kitchen, dining and family room that would open up the middle of the home, allowing the home to breathe and feel less closed in.

“The opening of that space is one of the reasons the addition is so successful,” says McKinney. “Otherwise you feel like you’re just in a set of train cars because it’s a long narrow site. That was really the key to the success of the second phase.”

The King William district is an area in San Antonio that’s the jewel in the crown in terms of beautiful old neighborhoods. It has a lot of German influence and much wonderful stone work. Many of the houses in the district are 100 to 150 years old, and the King William district is a frequent tourist destination because of its charm.

“The homeowner requested that we respect the architectural vocabulary of the neighborhood and to fit in rather than be something that was starkly modern,” explains McKinney. “They really wanted to be low-key and camouflaged within the community. So we carefully studied the neighborhood, with its two-story open porches and balconies, stone work and shapes of the roofs. Those were things that we emulated in our building and tried to be just timeless in how we detailed it so that when you get up close, you can see there are some really clean modern things done to the way the house is constructed, but it still is very fitted to the neighborhood. The neighbors and the historic commission were all very pleased at how understated it was.”

San Antonio has quite a tradition of masonry, and masons from the same families have worked there for generations. As a result, being able to match the type of masonry that was in the neighborhood, even down to using local quarries for the stone, was easy for McKinney’s team.

“Here we knew we would be able to find the quality of craftsmanship we were looking for,” McKinney adds. “We did, and that was a big part of why the house felt so good, I think.”

The house is really a house for three people, but the homeowners have a large extended family, and when the family comes to visit, they all come at the same time. The house needed to function well for a small family, but then transition well to house a dozen people. That was part of what happened in this addition. For instance, the family room has a room for a big slumber party to occur, and the guest bedroom is the same way. There are a number of spaces that are convertible for large groups of people, and that was once of the homeowner’s specific requests.

The ‘Messy Room’ Concept

Downstairs, there’s a study which is basically the size of a walk-in closet. It’s outfitted with a built-in desk, files and a computer. It’s a place where the homeowners can sit and do homework or work while a meal is being prepared or while things are going on in the big common room. The beauty of this room is that the project can be left in the middle without any cleanup required. Just close the door and leave everything set up.

“It was our way of keeping the mail and various projects off of the dining table or off of the kitchen counters and not having a kitchen desk,” says McKinney. “This is a space that can be closed off. It organizes the things that typically clutter the kitchen area, all in one space. That was something from the very beginning that was part of the old living room space and is now part of this much larger room, and I think it’s very successful as a nook to hide the messy stuff.”

Because of the success of this room, McKinney York Architects has started creating what they call “messy rooms” that are connected or adjacent to kitchens to function as project rooms where people can do homework, wrap presents, do their taxes — things that tend to be messy and can’t always be done very quickly. Self-contained, they don’t squander surface space in other parts of the house.

“We’ve done these rooms for years now and have found that they tend to be very popular with our clients,” adds McKinney.

At the front of the house there is a living room that opens onto a terrace. There use to be French doors that opened out to the terrace. McKinney swapped out those French doors in favor of triple-hung windows.

“That was more of a reaction to deliverymen, who didn’t know the neighborhood, going to those doors, when that’s not really the front door,” says Brian Carlson, AIA, project manager. “The front door is hidden from the street.

So we switched those to these triple-hung windows which can still be opened all the way to the top and open up to the terrace, but which give the appearance that this really isn’t the front door. They can be opened up and serve as a walk-through space on nice days and for parties, but when not being used, they definitely say windows and not an entryway.”

One of the ways McKinney and her team solved the problem of creating separation between the kitchen and dining area was to put in an island that contains a screen that can be opened up to give inclusion to the kitchen or closed to create a more intimate dining experience. The panels are made of copper by a local artisan, whose husband created some of the lights for the exterior of the home as well as other metal pieces for the home.

The key to adding almost as much space as the original home contained was to create a glass connector. The home is basically laid out as if there is a front house, a back house and a glassy connector. This connector and separation keeps the home from feeling like one long uninterrupted wall. Looking down from the bridge on the second floor of the glass connector, the entry space can be seen and gives the connector the feel of an indoor/outdoor area. The homeowners can pull up right next to this connector in the driveway to unload groceries; the connector functions much like the home’s back door.

“That whole entry point was critical to making the home work well and it’s kind of the most modern piece,” explains McKinney. “We tried to make it as light and transparent as possible, so you can read the stone through it. It looks like a glass insertion between two buildings of indeterminate age. It gives the project a little bit of an edge. You know it’s modern but it’s also very successful in terms of having that sense of being outside when you’re in that space. Having these spaces that kind of breathe is very important.”

On the back stair, with the slatted railings and storage underneath it, McKinney York created another outdoor-like space. It makes for a modern solution, keeping the home ageless but without dating it. As the project progressed, every once in awhile the team would add a modern element like this to spice up the design a bit.

The clients were amazingly patient with the remodel. The homeowners had an opportunity to live in another city for a year and were able to vacate the house for a big chunk of the construction time. That really took a lot of pressure off of McKinney’s team and allowed them to work quickly because we weren’t trying to work around the home’s occupants. They were able to go in and work as fast as possible without trying to make the home habitable throughout the project.

“Our sophisticated clients knew what they liked and didn’t, what they were looking for, and we were able to pick things we knew were going to be happy choices for them,” adds McKinney. “That made it move very smoothly. There were very few times when we felt like we had problems to untangle. They’ve told us they’re very happy with it and it suits them well.”