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It's in the Details

The original 1940s house that stood on a lot in East Austin isn't what caught John Hart Asher and his wife Bonnie Evridge's attention five years ago. It was the three-quarters of an acre of potential.

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Asher, an environmental designer at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and Evridge, who works at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, share a passion for ecological restoration, and set out to transform their land with drought-tolerant native turf grass, an organic vegetable garden, native blackland prairie restoration, wildflower beds, fruit trees, chickens, and rainwater collection. And while the 700-square-foot original house—too small, in need of a new foundation, and without a 90-degree angle in sight—got a minor remodel to make it more livable while they worked to restore the yard, when Asher and Evridge began thinking about growing their family last year, it was time to update. Enter East Austin-based design studio Thoughtbarn, founded by Lucy Begg and Robert Gay, who designed and built a modern house that connects the couple to their outdoors, instead of dividing them from it.

The home, with its warm wood and high, triangular ceilings, feels inspired by craftsmen bungalows and contemporary farmhouses. But to Asher and Evridge, more important than looks were key elements, like three bedrooms and two bathrooms. A house that fits in with the neighborhood. A healthy home with sustainable materials. A dialogue between the architecture and landscape. And lots of windows to maximize views of their yard.

Obviously, their land had the biggest influence on the shape and size of the now-1600-square-foot house, which began construction in October 2012 and was completed in June. Working with Asher to ensure the yard and trees were protected during construction was vital in designing a house that weaves itself within the existing foliage. “We really had to design around two trees—an American Elm and a pecan,” Gay explains. “The old house was more or less a small square, but we really tried to maximize the new house in a horizontal way, as close as we could get to the trees, and also vertically, as we built it as high as we could within the canopy.”

Careful consideration of client needs isn’t new to Thoughtbarn, which specializes in using creativity, resourcefulness, and collaboration to tackle daring projects with challenging budgets, such as interiors, buildings, furniture, and public installations. A think tank and workshop, Begg and Gay consider themselves makers who think. A compact team, the pair, along with a handful of employees, adapt to roles as needed (Gay wielded tools on this project when the timeline tightened). Their process is fluid, allowing for on-site conversations and designs that evolve naturally, managing builds in-house and collaborating with a tight-knit network of caring craftsmen. For this project, they worked with Conner Finn (of Finn Handmade) as the lead carpenter, and Jack Sanders’ Design Build Adventure handled steel fabrication.

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Challenged by a modest budget, Asher and Evridge’s house focused on passive design and investment in basic but high-quality materials. “They really wanted the house to be as sustainable as possible,” Gay says. “We tried to [make that happen] in the design, the materials used, and in the reuse of materials, really trying to execute [sustainable ideas] in every detail we could.”

This started with selectively demolishing the original house to keep as much material as possible. All the new upstairs flooring comes from the original wood floors, 1960s pine and 1920s heart pine, finished in a grey stain to match the concrete floor downstairs and tie the two different wood tones together. Floor beams from the old house were milled to become window trim. Cedar from the original small cosmetic remodel was reused in new closets. Locally-milled cypress wood was purchased to finish out the ceilings and clad the exterior.

Thanks to well-designed overhangs, much of the house is shaded from the sun by itself, and the unshaded walls have a double helping of the soy-based spray-foam insulation used throughout. Cross ventilation provides cool breezes in nearly every room when fiberglass-clad wood windows are opened. A huge sliding door in the living room opens wide to banish any barriers between the indoors and out, and artificial lights are hardly needed because the entire home is bathed in natural light.

“One way we kept [the home] efficient was by keeping the design simple,” Begg explains. “It was a small, committed team that doesn’t have a lot of elaborate tools but does have a huge attention to detail.”

In addition to their tight control on the construction process, Begg and Gay also got clever with design details to stay on budget. “Because we were designing and building, it allowed us to test a lot of ideas out,” Gay says. “For example, with the kitchen build-out, we used these IKEA countertops that you can get in slabs. It’s an affordable way to get oak material already laminated.” The finished oak IKEA wood countertops were also used for open kitchen cabinets, living room shelves, an office nook, and in the utility room (they estimate about 15 countertops total).

A subtle detail in the home is the sculptural, rippling white wood stair rail, abstractly based off of the topographical shape of the Mississippi River (Asher is originally from Jackson). Furnishings in the house include a curated mix of vintage family furniture, art, and affordable contemporary finds. When the owners did splurge on design elements—like the Heath Ceramics tile in the kitchen and master bathroom—they did so with companies whose sustainable philosophies aligned with their own.

Finally, there’s the stunning way Begg and Gay were able to satisfy Asher and Evridge’s most important request: A strong visual connection to their land, which the team implemented by creating connections with the outside that change depending on where you are in the house.

For instance, a view down the outdoor wooden walkway to the garden is seen through the sliding living room door; a living room window added during construction peeks out onto a bird feeder. The upstairs is a modern tree house, each window looking out into the canopy, with even the utility room window allowing for a glimpse of the pecan tree. And a small opening in the master bedroom aligns perfectly with a window in the living room, providing a view that looks out over the entire piece of land.

Asher and Evridge, who are expecting their first child in January, take pleasure from their whole home, inside and out. “We enjoy it here immensely,” Asher says. “There’s a wonderful connectivity to the outside. This whole site is our living room.”

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