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Natural Adaptations

An inventive Austin couple renovated a historical home to suit a modern, sustainable lifestyle.

The morning light struck the front façade of the home like a well-timed spotlight on a movie set, illuminating a radiant-white Greek Revival cottage, complete with a classic pitched roof and dormers and symmetrical front porch.

Austin architect Hugh Randolph of Hugh Jefferson Randolph Architects had never seen the house before that 2010 autumn morning, but he was overjoyed with his decision to cut through Clarksville’s Palma Plaza to avoid Enfield Road traffic. And the most exciting aspect of the idyllic 1930s home that looked to be in excellent condition? A “For Sale” sign planted in the front yard of the corner lot.

Randolph immediately thought of his clients, Ryan and Kim Battle, who were currently living with their two young daughters in a modern Tarrytown home he designed, but had recently started looking for a smaller, older home to renovate to accommodate a more sustainable lifestyle. That first “For Sale” sighting proved to be fateful. Just six weeks later, the Battles signed on the home and began outlining their unique redesign vision with Randolph at the helm.

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A Historic Foundation

The Battles were initially drawn to the home’s original aesthetic, but quickly realized they didn’t want to replicate the past. “When we first started the process, I proposed adding another porch on the adjacent street side to replicate the original façade, but Kim stopped me and said the front porch was all the tradition she could handle,” Randolph says. “That’s when I had the real “Aha” moment of the project.”

The Battles didn’t want to bury the past; they wanted to build upon it. Especially when they began to uncover the unique story behind the home. Ryan was particularly interested in the house’s history—tracking down the original blueprints and discovering the architect, Hilda Urbantke, a UT architecture grad who designed the home (with her older sister, Elsie, overseeing construction) for their family in 1935. “Ryan really thought of the design in the larger context of history,” Randolph says. “He saw his family as the current keepers of the house, who wanted to add parts of themselves, but also continue the spirit of Hilda.”

Randolph realized this wouldn’t be an overly reverential historic redesign. It would be a unique evolution of design adaptations (some subtle, some bold) that would honor the past while, at the same time, move the space into the future.

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Evolutions and Adaptations

Over the course of the next year, Rudolph and general contractor, Matt Risinger of Risinger Homes, essentially stripped the house to its studs, installing a new roof, four feet higher than the original, to accommodate a small second story for their daughters’ bedrooms. Distinctly modern dormers replaced the originals and other modestly-sized windows were expanded to maximum sizes, allowing natural light to flood in through panoramic panes, especially in the kitchen.

But despite new construction, original materials were not discarded or forgotten. The Battles were passionate about the preservation and adaptable reuse of the home’s historic materials (like shiplap walls, exposed steel, and worn red-brick chimney), but wanted them to exist within a more modern space. Once new spaces and dimensions were adjusted to the Battles’ specifications, original materials were reinstated, just in slightly different locations.

The front living room’s brick chimney is the only original material still located in its original place. The Battles were charmed by the redbrick centerpiece and thought it created a natural hearth around which the whole house could revolve. But there was one slight adaptation: The chimney had to be extended to accommodate the new, higher roof, leaving a visible line where the original and new brick meet—a noticeable “watermark of the past.” “We saw it as a real time capsule,” Randolph says. “Something that showed the history of the owners, old and new, like rings on a tree.” The team decided to showcase it as an archeological artifact, with a large skylight installed directly overhead, encasing the column of bricks in a radiant shower of natural light, like a museum display case.

It’s a fitting tribute to the past, but while the façade and entry remain fairly traditional, the distinct personality of the Battles—a delightful juxtaposition of new and old, modern and retro—can be seen throughout the interiors, designed entirely by Kim. Despite a background in psychiatric nursing, she has a natural flair for cultivating contrasting, yet complementary spaces, characterized by colorful Scandinavian accents sourced from local boutiques like Nannie Inez, alongside antiques like the 1800s player piano in the family den. One of Kim’s favorite finds is framed behind the kitchen stove’s hovering range hood—a black and white wallpaper design, entitled “All of Us” by the Los Angeles designer Pottok. It’s an engaging mash-up of monochromatic individuals from all walks of life—a community which the Battles don’t mind watching over them as they cook their family meals. It’s just another daily reminder that “we’re all in this together,” as Ryan likes to say.

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A Home to House a Sustainable Life

The small workshop in the backyard (formerly the garage) has also evolved into a space where Ryan, a Principal Program Manager at Microsoft with a lifelong passion for sustainable practices, works to build upon his personal and community-oriented passions. “We joke that I built the house so I could have the workshop,” he says.

Ryan spent his first years in Austin volunteering for a local non-profit that created community gardens on undeveloped city lots. He’s also an avid cyclist and car-sharing supporter, but after a frustrating lack of options to safely store bikes within vehicles, like Car2Gos, he invented a lightweight bike rack designed to easily attach and detach from Car2Go vehicles. His “Free2Go” patent is now pending, with a Kickstarter campaign running until early December and initial design stages scheduled soon after. He has high hopes for his innovative bike rack and says it’s the first of many to be born from his new workspace.

His family’s new home, featured in this November’s AIA Homes Tour, was an excellent way to exercise his passions in the hopes of inspiring others, but he tends to work best when juggling multiple projects. At the moment, he’s busy installing a front porch swing—an homage to the former owners’ favorite pastime. And the backyard, a xeroscaped space in between the house and workshop, will be the site of his latest vegetable garden, providing fresh ingredients for his Sunday ritual of cooking family meals, in addition to supplying neighborhood restaurants, like Cippolina, in the near future.

“I just want to keep doing things that encourage other people to do better…for themselves or for their community,” Ryan says. “It might be a neighbor seeing how we’ve designed our house or someone starting an urban garden or a cyclist using the Free2Go rack to get to and from their shared car…. I just want to help people get there.”

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