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Call of the Wild

A reimagined dance studio connects to the soothing rhythms of Hill Country and provides a dreamy stage for less-is-more living.

When you first walk into parenting guru Carrie Contey’s new living room, about 20 miles west of Austin, you sense immediately how this building began as a dancer’s dream laboratory. Great expanses of windows open the loft-like space to the outdoors, bringing light, breeze, and the green of the surrounding tree-covered hills into the room. Boundaries between inside and out feel deliberately porous. Such openness has a physically energizing impact—as if leaping like a dancer or maybe gliding like the turkey buzzards just outside Contey’s windows is within the realm of possibility.

This home is all about possibilities. In 2005, Austin Community College dance department chair José Bustamante, wanting a studio where he could experiment with video projection, collaborated closely with Austin architect Rick Black to create a choreographer’s playground. Brainstorming during sometimes seven-hour meetings that lasted through dinner, Black and Bustamante laid out a plan for what would become a 1,620-square-foot dance studio with 21-foot ceilings downstairs, and a wide-open kitchen/dining/living area with one bedroom and two baths upstairs. The upstairs walls are movable wooden panels that open to overlook the dance studio below.

“The inspiration for the project was to provide space that dealt with the sense of gravity,” says Black, who, like Bustamante, saw this as an art project as much as an architectural one. “That seemed interesting to José from the point of view of a dancer—the sense of weight and hovering.”

Like a dance posture, the 1,170-square-foot upstairs living space cantilevers out from the building’s sturdy metal frame—achieving a striking balance between gravity and flight. A butterfly roof lifts the structure upward and funnels rain to a 10,000-gallon water tank. Handsome custom-made steel beams and window frames anchor the roof, while the clean sparseness, high ceilings, and expanses of windows make it float.

It feels like more than chance that Contey, who bought the house from Bustamante last November, should now be the steward of such a balanced creation: helping families with young children find their own equilibrium is her life’s work. With a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and a specialty in prenatal and perinatal psychology, Contey launched her coaching practice in 2004. At the time, she supported parents in their early years of raising children through one-on-one and small-group meetings in her south-central Austin home. Over the past decade, Contey has developed her practice into a broader form of parent coaching, creating an online community that spans the globe, and her comprehensive program for new parents, Evolve, has taken off.

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“Just talking about parenting and self-care wasn’t enough,” says Contey, who structured the Evolve program to support parents in all areas of family life: parenting, personhood, partnership, and prosperity. Contey works with clients for more than a year, interacting with them through daily e-mails, a community site, livecasts, and in-person gatherings.

“In this way, I can consistently whisper in their ear, ‘Hey, slow down, get connected, be playful,’ and help them really find a new way of thinking and being,” says Contey. “Through the work we do together, they rewire their own brains and create more mindful ways of connecting with and guiding their growing people. And ultimately family life, and life in general, becomes more fun.”

It is because of this Web-based evolution of her work that Contey has been able to realize her own dream—living a more streamlined life close to nature. In the midst of one of her regular work/play road trips this past summer, driving alone in her car, she hit upon the clarity that inspired this move away from ever-more-dense Austin to its outskirts. “I was on the open road, it was beautiful weather, and the message that kept blaring at me was ‘Bigger nature, smaller living space, less stuff.’”

Upon her return to Austin, she found this property while browsing a modern housing website. Bustamante, who’d been so busy with his full-time job in Austin that he wasn’t able to stay out at the house enough, was ready to pass it on. Carrie acted fast, drove out to see it, fell in love, and ended up signing the papers the day before Thanksgiving. And her love affair with the house has only grown deeper over time.

“It feels like it is changing me to be living in such nature,” she says, looking out over the newly green spring landscape from her back patio. “I wake up every morning with the sun since my bedroom window faces east. I am very aware of the stars. I can sit and watch the clouds for hours. I feel much more in tune with how the world is moving. It’s changing me, and how I want to work. Just being here puts me in a state of complete awe. What I’m consuming each day . . . it feels like a satisfying feast that nourishes me deeply.”

Black and Bustamante were very deliberate in building the house in relation to natural cycles. “We figured out some ways to bring the breeze in low and ventilate up high in order to take advantage of thermal convection,” says Black. “We oriented the building away from the afternoon sun and toward the ravine that lies to the east. Apparently the moonrise is amazing there.”

And even though it takes only about half an hour without traffic to drive in to Central Austin, Contey does not go to town much. She doesn’t miss city living. Friends come out, her neighbors all watch out for one another, and she travels plenty for work and play. Rather than feeling isolated, she feels the opposite: more connected—with her work, the landscape, the people she loves, and with what makes her hum.

“If I am asking my clients to slow down and connect with their people and get more in tune with what they love about their life,” says Contey, “I need to be living that myself every day. If I am going to help others find and create their most joyful lives, I’d better be practicing what I preach.”

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