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By Helen Thompson | Photo: Casey Dunn | October 17, 2016
Austin architect James LaRue refers to the glass, rock and metal house that stretches along the rim of a hill just west of Austin as “the upside-down house.” Its composed mien belies the suggestion that there is anything out of sync in this softly modern two-story house that gazes at Mount Bonnell, one of the city’s most beloved landmarks. What LaRue means about the sturdy structure that also manages to look gracefully light as air is that he had to reorder the usual program of living space (living, dining and kitchen are upstairs; bedrooms are down) to accommodate the steeply sloping site. To a passerby cruising the winding roads of this close-to-town oasis, the house appears to be a virtuosic interpretation of a single-story ranch house. But the architect, the interior designer Julie Evans, and their builder and client, Greg Reynolds, know different. “This lot was so steep,” says LaRue, “we spent most of our time figuring out how to make the house work properly on the site.”
It’s obvious that the team was successful in figuring out how to make the house work properly—but the task demanded more than just freeing up functionality. The success of the 6,400-square-foot, five-bedroom dwelling could have been derailed in favor of the easy solution: Most of the aesthetic and structural choices the team of three had to make were a tug-of-war between extremes. First and foremost was the struggle between the site and the architect’s conviction about what was right. “We didn’t want to go up,” says LaRue. “The building would have been too imposing for the site.” Instead, he and Reynolds opted for a residence that hugs the ridge, subtly responding to its hilly setting. Popping up over the low-pitched metal roof, a shed roof punctuates the dramatic entry framing a view straight through the house and into the hills beyond. Three gabled roofs are visually uplifting, mimicking the silhouette of the distant hills.
LaRue’s design makes the most of rock and glass, inspiring a dynamic interaction between solid and transparent, heavy and light. Designer Evans responded to the setting with a selection of fabrics, furniture and lighting that enliven a house that seems to float along the horizon. She also was tasked with finding the happy medium between two opposing sensibilities. “My clients did not have the same tastes initially,” she says. “The wife, Kim, did not like contemporary design; Greg did. My job was to make sure the interior design could go both ways.”
Evans based her design decisions on juxtaposition. “There’s a lot of it in this house,” she says. “I paired rustic with contemporary, especially in the lighting.” Two stainless steel halo chandeliers crowned with industrial-style bulbs in the dining room stand out against the backdrop of the family room’s wood beams. It’s a call-and-response between ultramod and cozy. Also in the family room, the sofa—with its straightly proper arms and curved back—would make a modernist happy. But upholstered in soft chenille and detailed with brass nail heads, this comfy destination is the favorite place to lounge for the two teens and one youngster.
Comfort, in fact, was the driving force for this lively family of five. “Greg and Kim wanted everything to look nice,” says Evans, “but they are not formal people at all.” While the kids are kicking back in the family room or congregating on the covered deck that’s just beyond, the parents like to hang out in the living room. There, a television can be niftily disguised as cabinetry behind a sliding mahogany door, while a fire in the fireplace is an option in the winter. Evans upholstered the pair of sofas in chenille and anchored the space with a soft-under-foot wool rug. The floor-to-ceiling curtains suggest formality, but on closer inspection it’s hard to miss the fact that the fabric’s glitter is tiny mesh that resembles chain mail—an understated gesture acknowledging the designer’s belief that a traditional look can be empowered with edgier elements.
The same fabric makes a command performance in the master bedroom, where the mesh-embedded curtains frame a lush view of the rolling Texas Hill Country. Evans kept the color palette in the room neutral with museum-white walls, continuing the low-key tone she and LaRue established in the rest of the house. “We didn’t want to distract from the setting,” says Evans. She gives the architect credit for endowing the house with a layout that captures the best geometries of the landscape. “Jim has a wonderful sense of the geography,” she says. “He’s given us something to see from every room.” But that’s all in a day’s work for an architect who teases logic and beauty from complicated terrain. The effort LaRue and Reynolds exerted at the beginning of the project reveals itself daily in views that now exist because only the architecture focuses on them. The result is transforming: “We turned an unprepossessing site into a treasure,” says LaRue.
James LaRue, architect
Rez Lankarani, project architect
Reynolds Custom Homes
LandWest Design Group
Architectural Tile & Stone
Wall in master bath
Seapearl paint throughout
Black Sheep Unique
Rug in living room
Porcelanosa floor in master bath, quartzite countertops in kitchen, limestone flooring on patio
Drapery fabric in living room and master bedroom
Rugs in master bedroom and kitchen
Aluminum sliding doors
Bench and bed in master bedroom, sofas in living and family rooms
Chandelier in dining room
Aluminum-clad wood windows throughout