A couple, having just completed a three-year renovation of their home, took a long look around and came to a startling realization: the house still would not do. Though the remodel had achieved all of their original goals, in the time it took to complete the work, their wants—and needs—had changed. “The house was in the Tuscan style, and though we did what we could to make it as contemporary as possible, in the end it just wasn’t what they wanted,” says designer Alan Cano.
“No sooner than right after we had finished, they turned around and said, ‘Alan, help us find a piece of property and an architect so we can build a brand-new house from the ground up.’ ”
That the husband and wife entrusted Cano to find both the site of their new home and the person who would design it was no surprise. The three had enjoyed a long and collaborative relationship: They had engaged Cano to compose not only the interiors of their home, but also those of the wife’s retail boutique. And, because his clients through the years had embraced a more and more modern aesthetic, Cano knew exactly which architect to call.
“I told them to take a look at Bercy Chen,” Cano says. “Their work is very out there, very different, and I thought it would be a good match.” The clients met with architect Thomas Bercy, and a match was indeed made. Bercy’s modernist approach was just what the owners were looking for, and his passion for and expertise in sustainable design dovetailed nicely with their interests.
Fanning out from the street back onto the greenbelt, the dramatically sloped property posed a challenge Bercy enthusiastically met: “There’s a lot of topography in this area, unlike the rest of Texas,” he says. “West Austin has amazing geology, so the site actually drops from the top to the bottom by as much as 35 feet. That affected how the house was positioned and how the approach would work, and technical aspects such as drainage.” Placement and development of all facets of the project, agrees builder Justin Garrett, “were very complex. The structural design especially was incredibly intricate.” Yet Bercy’s program overcame every obstacle.
Echoing the parameters of the lot, the architect designed a descending multi-level approach leading to a V-shaped structure clad in ipe wood and Lueders limestone that frames a generous outdoor courtyard, visible through walls of glass. The whole is marked by rooftop rainwater troughs cleverly disguised as waterfalls and collection tanks cloaked as freestanding concrete ponds. An in-ground 30,000-gallon tank captures runoff from the roof and driveway, and feeds all of the home’s water features. “We were extremely conscious about utilizing elements of sustainability in an aesthetically interesting way,” Bercy says. “So, for example, the water collection system became the cascading pools, which then became a part of the architecture itself.”
With the myriad water features a defining characteristic of the project and commitment to green design paramount, Garrett’s background in commercial construction proved critical. “There were many similarities between what we did here and what’s done on a commercial construction site,” he says. “The whole exoskeleton of this house is structural steel; we used metal studs, not wood, and spray-foamed all the interior walls. This house is incredibly quiet and energy efficient.”
Inside, Cano engineered a hushed palette, selecting simple, unadorned furniture, rugs and accessories in light tones complemented by the pale limestone and tigerwood floors, and white rift-sawn cabinetry seen throughout. “They collect art,” says the designer of his clients.
“Neutral interiors allow their works to become the focal point of each room.”
Yet despite its pared-down color scheme, brevity of materials and seemingly uncomplicated design, the house possesses a particularly pleasant and inviting pull, both for its owners and their guests. It’s what Bercy expected all along. “There is this notion that modern architecture is cold,” he says. “We reject that notion.”
—Elisa Chemayne Agostinho