As the northern edge of San Antonio gently melds into Texas Hill Country, rolling prairies dotted with towering oaks and blankets of candy-colored wildflowers indelibly mark the landscape. So when a couple decided to build a home there, in the community of Leon Springs, they vowed to take full advantage of their environment. They wanted to do more than just admire the area’s natural beauty, though—they wanted to help protect it. So they turned to the architects at Lake|Flato, a firm well known for dwellings that pay tribute to the landscape and are sustainable to boot.
The homeowners had raised their daughter in a large traditional home filled with equally traditional furnishings. Now empty nesters with an eye toward retirement, they were ready to pare down. “They wanted to simplify their lives,” says project manager Jennifer Young. “Clean lines and a connection to the outdoors were high on the wish list.”
Young and her colleagues designed a modestly sized home and a separate guesthouse joined by a loggia, creating a campus-like environment. “They didn’t want a typical house,” says architect and firm partner Karla Greer of her clients. “They wanted something that engaged more with the land. The buildings create courtyards and exterior spaces, and you get to travel outside to access different parts. In a sense, we’ve taken a smaller home and pulled it apart, so they can enjoy more of the site.”
“One of the most important aspects of building a green house is building less,” adds architect and firm principal Ted Flato. “The idea was to create just the amount of space that they would use. And the guesthouse is a separate structure, so when no one’s visiting, it gets turned off.”
The property features several outdoor living spaces, including a porch off the guesthouse and a sleeping porch off the master bedroom, where the couple slumber when the weather allows, which is most of the year. “Those porches are really special,” Young says. “The views are amazing, and the breezes are awesome.”
The homeowners take full advantage of nature’s air conditioning, as well as Mother Earth’s other gifts, from sun to rain. “The home has solar panels, geothermal pumps and a rainwater collection system,” says builder Glen Duecker. “The house is planned to work with the contours of the land, and it feels very peaceful and serene,” Greer adds. “The land has been minimally disturbed to let the structure just lightly fit onto it.”
“We’re fine-tuning the energy usage, and, hopefully, this home will eventually become completely independent of the local supply,” Young says. “The rainwater collected here provides 100 percent of the clients’ potable indoor water. Last year, it even got them through a record drought. Every time it rained, I’d think about the water filling up their cisterns.”
The team also used green materials, many locally sourced. The home’s stone veneer is limestone from Lueders, for example, and much of the flooring is mesquite, which long ago paved the streets of San Antonio. “No one thinks of mesquite as a building material, because it’s just a gnarly, tough little tree,” Flato says. “But when you cut it into slices, you get these great blocks.” These efforts and others ultimately earned the home its LEED Platinum certification, the highest rating for sustainable building.
And while the house may be half the size of the couple’s former residence, they don’t notice, thanks to the open living spaces and lofty ceilings. To finish out the interiors, they called on designer Debbie Baxter, who created earthy, scaled-back spaces. “They wanted the interior to be a response to the architecture, which is my goal in everything I do,” Baxter says. “I chose the palette from the vistas outside those big windows, so there would be an integration of nature and what was inside the house.”
Giving a nod to Texas Hill Country, Baxter chose furnishings such as a leather cowhide chair and a coffee table made of limestone, which is common to the area. The couple often spend time with family, so another priority was comfort and warmth. “All of the building materials are hard surfaces, so I made sure there was plushness and comfort in the seating, without it being overly done,” Baxter says.
The home’s welcoming, resort-like vibe brings plenty of visitors. And, like the homeowners, guests can’t decide which is better: being indoors or out. “The wife’s father has stayed in the guesthouse several times and absolutely loves it,” Young says. “He feels like he has his own little cabana, and in the mornings everyone meets out under the covered porch for breakfast.”