Mother Nature is relentless on Austin, Texas. The area can experience temperature swings of 40, 50, even 60 degrees in one day. The skies withhold rain for so long the ground dries and cracks. Then, a sudden onslaught of rain, sometimes dumping 6 in. in a matter of hours, can’t soak into the cracked ground, resulting in flash flooding.
One family’s house, which rests at the bottom of a hill, sat directly in the path of water rushing downhill en route to a dry creek, making it prone to flooding. During one such flood, the husband worked for hours trying to keep 14 in. of lapping water at his front door out of the house. That dramatic event served as the impetus to make a drastic change to the house. After scouring the neighborhood for a house to their liking and coming up empty-handed, the family decided to renovate the property they owned. The owners had two goals in mind for the renovation: Prevent future flood events and make the home more suitable for their active family.
Guided by the team at Austin-based CG&S Design-Build, the two-story home underwent a nearly full gut, increasing it from 3,660 sq. ft. to 4,910 sq. ft.
The footprint expanded on both sides of the house and the rear. The garage grew to fit three cars and include storage space, as well as making room for a larger kitchen and mud room. The master suite incorporated a larger closet and bath. A first-floor in-law suite enables the clients’ aging parents to visit while remaining comfortabe. The back wall was pushed out to make more space for the living room and create a large, covered deck.
Jon Strain, project manager with CG&S Design-Build, said the house was in design for two to three years and in production for about one year. “The fundamental essence of the drawings remained in the finished project,” he recalls. “There were some subtle changes; those were usually associated with finish selections. There weren’t any significant modifications to the design.”
Mark Lind, project designer with CG&S at the time, who now works with the firm as an independent contractor, echoes Strain’s comments about few changes while building. “I like to remind people a ‘design-build’ project doesn’t mean you should try to design while you are building,” he says.
The design team enjoyed creative leeway throughout design and construction. “The owners were good about stating their desires in general terms and allowing their design team to come up with specific solutions,” Lind continues. Contrasting finish materials harmonize well throughout the space. “We combined more expensive finish materials like cherry, granite and iridescent glass tile with more industrial materials like MDF, concrete countertops and exposed beams,” Lind says. “The way these different materials coexist happily within the same space is what makes this project special.”
Floating architectural elements, such as the staircase and cabinetry, appear throughout. “There is a lot of structural steel that is concealed in the floor, in the framing and behind the sheetrock [for support],” Strain explains. “If it’s exposed, such as under the stairs, it’s painted to blend in with the shadows. In certain lighting conditions, those stairs literally look like they’re floating. They’re very rigid, though.”
Lind’s art background makes him especially aware of the feel of a space. “There is a kind of heaviness in the design of this project, from the materials to the proportions of the forms themselves, which tend to be very rectangular. But because of this attention to detailing, the resulting space really feels quite comfortable to be in. When you make heavy elements appear to be light, as if they’re defying gravity, that is a design challenge and very rewarding when it’s done well.”
The house renovation was so involved even the roof was removed and replaced with a metal version. “We just try to time the work to happen during the dry weather, which, given our summers in Texas, isn’t all that risky,” Lind says. “What people don’t see are other structural elements such as the many steel and wood beams and time spent ensuring the HVAC ductwork can get from one side of the house to the other. That sort of coordination is one of the greatest challenges on renovation projects involving structural changes.”
Gregory Thomas, AIA, senior project architect at CG&S Design-Build, served as the landscape architect. “We had to divert all the water,” he says, referring to the natural flow of water rushing downhill during rainfall. Now, the first line of defense is a berm at the street, which directs water away from the house when it jumps the curb. A walkway with steps, which also shunt water away, connects to the front door.
When the water is too overwhelming for the berm and steps, an arroyo around the property protects the house. The arroyo, which is a man-made dry creek, is about 4 ft. wide and goes from 1 ft. deep at its beginning to 3 1/2 ft. deep when it ends. “The water will come across the yard then go into the arroyo,” Thomas explains. “The arroyo is pitched heading downhill, and at the bottom there are drainage pipes that take the water out of their yard and into a neighborhood dry creek behind the property.”
The pool presented additional drainage challenges because it was situated in the natural drainage path. Thomas designed a walkway and a retaining wall that, while still being aesthetically pleasing, function to direct water away from the pool.
Drainage concerns became so complicated, in fact, a civil engineer calculated the drainage pipes and initial design of the arroyo. “He had to take in the tributary area of the whole neighborhood and what potentially will flow across this yard then size the drainage to accommodate that,” Thomas says.
Thomas employed xeriscaping for the yard plantings, which focuses on plantings that are suitable for the area’s natural climate. In this case, the plantings had to sustain heat stress, freeze conditions, long periods of drought and occasional flooding. “The palette in Austin is pretty challenging,” he says.
Thomas, who welcomed the opportunity to landscape the entire property, took special care with the dynamics of the front entrance. “There’s a choreography to how I have people arrive at the site and get to the front door and across the steps,” he says. Visitors traverse around a large steel planter with an agave plant, which is on center with the front door, when accessing the front door from the street. “The thought was a more measured and indirect path would be better than a straight shot approach,” Thomas explains. “You have to navigate certain elements to arrive in the yard, but once you step down into the yard you can leave the street behind.
“There’s a poetry to all of that,” Thomas continues. “Somebody else could’ve done the same task of taking care of flood controls, but then it would’ve been done in a way that wasn’t satisfying. I don’t think people know I’m dealing with the flood problem; I’m creating a sense of arrival with the landscaping.”
The Sum of All Parts
Strain’s biggest challenge was keeping the project running smoothly, which he says is a challenge in every project. He estimates close to 300 people worked on this house. “I often compare construction to playing with Legos,” he says. “If you have a solid picture and a complete stack of Legos, then building isn’t really a challenge; it’s fun. The challenge is making sure all the Legos are there when and where they’re supposed to be.” Ample communication and reliable team players ensured a smooth execution.
Despite its challenging nature, the successful coordination is Strain’s favorite element. “I imagine that’s similar to what a composer loves about music,” he says. “He’s not necessarily playing any instruments, but he’s orchestrating and directing all of them. Even though I didn’t drive a nail or pick up a paint brush, I watched every nail get driven; I watched every brush stroke. I was a part of arranging those things and ensuring they happened on time and to the proper standards.”