Those who enjoy architecture history can see a good bit of it in the two-story addition designed and built for this single-story worker cottage. The first modernists of the Bauhaus school in the early 20th century, Le Corbusier among them, often sought to “remove the ground” from under the buildings they designed. Today you can see many modern structures with glassy, wide-open first floors and living or work spaces above.
David Webber of Webber + Studio in Austin, who designed the addition, liked hearing that someone had made this connection, but the glassed-in first floor was not a conscious nod to those modernists. Today, nearly 100 years after many of these concepts were first conceived, the elements of modernism have become baked into the vernacular of thousands of architects.
Instead, Webber came about the shape and look of this solution honestly. He looked at the objectives of the homeowners, the attributes of the existing structure and the possibilities offered by the site, namely a small but green backyard, and fitted a solution that works well and looks outstanding to many disinterested observers.
Webber is of the viewpoint that large additions that mimic an older, existing structure tend to “diminish” the overall result. That is why his design for the home offers two distinct sections, an old and a new. This combination is a form of postmodernism, but again, the concept of blending starkly different old and new elements has become an established style. Webber employed the device pragmatically.
“The question is, how do you add on in a way that is modern and integrates. I think the worst crime is to build an addition in exactly the same way as the original house,” says Webber. “The original house was oftentimes built many decades ago and it really is authentic, and if you just copy it, you diminish the importance of the original.”
In terms of the massing, Webber’s solution for the owners — a couple with plans to perhaps have a family — was to renovate and maintain the original structure while creating something completely new on the back. The idea was sparked by Webber’s desire to offer inward and outward looking solutions to match with the function of the spaces. In the front, with its two bedrooms and living room, it made sense to preserve the predominant attributes of the existing cottage — cool, dark, inward and cozy. The same goes for the second floor of the new addition. It houses a master suite and an office, so it made sense to offer an enclosed enclave. But for the new kitchen/dining room on the lower floor of the addition, Webber sought an open, outward feeling that offers a relaxing “suburban” feeling amidst the hubbub of the urban core.
“Our thought was ‘why not design something that significantly contrasts with the house?’ and yet the new roofline echoes the house, so you have that relationship,” Webber explains. “Furthermore, we thought it would be nice to have the original part of the house be this cooler, darker, inward-looking space. And for the addition we thought of building something of a similar scale to the house, but that would be lifted up off the ground by this glass wall.
“So while the new addition upstairs remains cozy, quaint and of a similar scale to the rest of the house, the glass-enclosed kitchen below becomes this contrast — a sunny, bright, explosively outward-looking space.”
Why would anyone buy a 75-year-old, 900-sq.-ft. cottage (quite dilapidated) and spend approximately $458,000 refurbishing it and adding an equal amount of square feet on the back? Through what prism does a decision like this make sense? Location has a lot to do with it. This cottage sits in the heart of an up-and-coming neighborhood where land values have far outpaced the caliber of the existing housing. The prism through which many residents of the Bouldin section of Austin see things is one that places a great deal of stock in neighborhood charm, walkability and connectedness to a vibrant urban core.