Rather than seeing the Balcones fault line running through their property as a flaw, architectural designer Elizabeth Alford and artist Michael Young chose to celebrate it.
“As a kid in Austin, you grow up knowing about the Balcones fault,” says Elizabeth. “When we discovered that it runs the width of this lot, we decided to use it as a boundary, to set the limits of where we could build.”
In addition to celebrating the geology of the site, the house was built with indebtedness to the 1957 structure that was here previously. That house, designed by Jonathan Bowman, was too deteriorated to save, but elements of it remain. The new cantilevered living room is perched on one of the original limestone walls, and the outdoor fireplace used to be inside a bedroom. “We took everything down around it, clad it in concrete and created an outdoor room,” she says.
Sliding glass doors can be found throughout the house, and in the living room, the doors stack to one side for maximum openness. “We like having moving architectural components,” says Elizabeth. ‘With that whole wall open, the living room extends into the foliage. It feels like a treehouse.”
Together with their two teenagers, Elizabeth and Michael describe themselves as a family of collectors and makers. The family room is really a studio, a project room where they all work on things. Inspired by the arid landscape, the family collects cacti – “we’re cactifiles” – wood boxes, art books, lab glass and turtle shells. “Turtles are so beautiful, and they’re great metaphors for architecture,” says Michael. “A turtle walks around with its house on its back.”
Many of Michael’s current paintings are inspired by the patterns on turtle shells, and some of the canvases are made with actual sand the family has collected from all over the world. “We have a huge collection of different sands,” says Elizabeth. “It celebrates place. It’s the geology of each individual setting.”
“In modernism, the white generic box has been with us for a long time, and Elizabeth and I think a lot about how real materials bring both a physical presence and color to a space. The color of these walls is wood,” says Michael.
Using a special cut of straight-grain pine that flows throughout the house, the richly colored wood offers a pleasing juxtaposition to the concrete floors and walls of glass. Michael compares the wood to being like a blanket in how it brings warmth to the walls.
“The house is modern, but we introduced tactility and intimacy through materials and created a dialogue with other periods and ways of building,” says Elizabeth. “Materials like wood come with their own history. It’s like a thumbprint. It’s not anonymous.”