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It Takes a Village
Helen Thompson | Photo: Casey Dunn | January 22, 2013
A house built into a rocky Austin hillside by architect Paul Lamb was inspired by the hardscrabble mountain villages of Peloponnese, Greece, where the homeowner’s family still lives.
Twenty years ago, when a young real estate developer and his wife purchased a lot on a winding road in central Austin, it was the last of its kind—a rugged site across from Lake Austin, with an enviable view into the hills west of town. “It was an interesting site,” he says, real estate shorthand for lots that are virtually unbuildable.
As luck would have it, the wife had just returned from a visit to Nestani, her grandfather’s home town in Peloponnese, the peninsula that forms the hilly southern part of Greece. She knew exactly what to do with the hardscrabble hillside she and her husband had just acquired. “Nestani is a mountain village,” she says, “and all the houses are built against the mountain. Everybody has their own house but they look like they are connected.” Her idea: Construct a house that looked like a mountain village on their own hill in Austin.
The resulting renovation is basically five rooms, anchored by a long hallway from the entry, past the kitchen and living room, to the master bedroom. To the right and down a few steps from the entry are bedrooms for the couple’s two now-grown daughters (ages 5 and 9 at the time). Straight in front of the entry, windows line one side of the spine, and look through the trees toward the lake. “That hallway is really like a little street,” notes the wife. “It connects each of the buildings, one to the other.” On another level above the hallway are the kitchen, breakfast and dining areas. The living room is across from the kitchen at the end of the hall. For anyone who is counting, following the ups and downs of the terrain means this deceptively small house (3,600 square feet) has many level changes: “It’s a total of 18 inside, I think,” she says, “but it might be more.” The village concept worked beautifully for the growing family.
Now empty nesters, the couple decided to renovate five years ago, adding a pool and a wheelchair-accessible entertainment pavilion for large parties at the bottom of the hill. In the main house, rooms would remain exactly where they were, but functionality would change. The pair turned to architect Paul Lamb, who along with Austin architect Gary Furman, had originally designed the project. “That lot was so steep and full of trees,” says Lamb. “I was always amazed that we could build anything on it.” But Lamb had been inspired by the village concept. He explains how he came up with a design for a skinny, U-shaped cluster of four connected limestone buildings that snakes its way through the oaks along the crest of the craggy vertical lot: “Wherever we could walk,” he says, “that became a hallway. Wherever we stopped and waved our arms, that became a room.”
“We considered downsizing,” says the wife. “But I always had this nagging thought that since we had such happy years raising our daughters in this house, I just wanted them to be able to return to that same time when they visited.” The homeowners weren’t using the house like they had been anyway. For one thing, the wife had taken over running her family’s business. “I’m on the road about 90 percent of my time now,” she says. There were things she used to do at home that she no longer did—such as give dinner parties. “I realized I hated doing that,” she says with a laugh. In the redesign, that acknowledgment was the death knell for the dining area, which was deftly transformed into a family room by removing the long dining table and adding a Meridiani sofa, coffee table and metallic poufs for seating.
Ironically, the fact that dinner parties were eliminated from the couple’s agenda didn’t mean that they were now party-free. The couple actually has to give bigger parties as part of the family business. “The rooms in our house are intimate, and there wasn’t a place where that could happen,” she notes. But at the bottom of the rocky hill, a flat area was the obvious option and that’s where Lamb designed a screened-in pavilion with a full kitchen and dining area that can be used almost year-round. The approach is a Texas version of a grand entrance, a straight shot alongside a 70-foot lap pool covered by a galvanized metal barrel vault canopy.
They also nixed the living room. “We realized,” says the husband, “that we never used it.” That was also an easy fix: Lamb removed a fireplace that had loomed large. “It freed up space for me to have an office at home,” says the husband about his new lair complete with desk and display space for his treasures. His wife added a Matteo Grassi Tent table and four Poliform chairs where the sofa had been, smartly outfitting the room for business meetings or card games, as well as for close-up views of gnarly branches on the oak trees (“My favorite view,” says the husband).
Just beyond the living room and down another short set of steps, is the master bedroom: “The big change in here was to split the bathroom into his-and-hers baths,” says the wife, noting that their conflicting schedules often mean one partner is dressing while the other is trying to sleep. The modification was a philosophical leap from the original bath concept, which positioned the tub at the end of the bed. “That was one of our ideas that really didn’t work,” says the wife. “We moved the tub into the bathroom pretty quick.” The room is minimally furnished with a Meridiani bed angled to face a garden view. A door opens from the bedroom into a courtyard; it merges into wide terraced steps leading to the pool area. “It’s easy for me to run down there and jump in,” says the wife. “I swim every day that I’m home.”
The couple considers being at home the driving force behind their renovation. “Since I am away so much with work,” says the wife, “I really wanted the home to be a destination when I return. When I’m here, I almost never leave: I don’t get in the car. I either walk or bike on these hills just outside our door. I swim laps or work out in the small exercise room. It makes up for all the days I have to burn up on the highway.” Being at home—in this home—is, it turns out, pretty much like living in a little village, where the essentials are close at hand. And there’s proof that the renovation worked as envisioned: “Recently both of our daughters were in town at the same time,” says the wife, “and the house had the same vibe it used to, except it functioned even better. It was wonderful and reminded me of why I didn’t want to leave this house in the first place.”