Alterstudio Architects transform a wild Westlake lot with style.
Climbing the windy roads to Javier and Gladys Gracia’s new house, one thing is clear: building in Westlake is not for the faint of heart. Craggy drop-offs abound. Teens peel around sharp turns. Deer flit across the road. For those who want to live in this tony Austin neighborhood, the challenges that accompany hill-set lots make construction projects expensive and downright daunting.
Such was the case for the Gracias, a family from Monterrey, Mexico who happened across the 3.4 acre Westlake property in 2010 and scooped it up. Set on a slope replete with Spanish oaks and live oaks, the lot overlooks Westlake Drive: a busy and noisy thoroughfare. There are also overhead power and communication lines obstructing the downslope view, not to mention the roofs of neighboring houses. How could the Gracias make the most of their gorgeous, tree-laden property, one saddled with significant design challenges?
They needed help. But they didn’t find it on Google.
While driving around Austin, Javier and Gladys turned into Scout Island, a courtyard subdivision off 360 and 2222 filled with, as Ernesto Cragnolino from Alterstudio calls them, “castle-like mansions on tight lots.” Think limestone walls, prim gardens, roofs that long to be in an English manor. Which made one home there—angular, highly windowed, not a gable in sight—all the more noticeable.
“The owners were just moving in, so I knocked on the door, and they let me come in and see the whole house,” Javier says. “I loved it. And that was how we discovered Alterstudio Architects.”
That Scout Island home has since earned Alterstudio Architects a couple of awards: an AIA Austin Design Award—Honor (2011), and inclusion in the 2011 AIA Austin Homes Tour. But while other projects (like Alterstudio’s dramatic, three-story lookout on East Windsor) have garnered the firm a larger slew of press and recognition, Scout Island is one of the studio’s dearest projects, as it both capitalizes on the lot’s natural surroundings and takes a radical design departure from its neighboring residences.
“That was what we wanted,” Javier says. “We like the use of brick, the fact that this style was a mix of old and modern. And that it was not just a boring white box, but felt new and special.”
Scout Island’s owners gave Javier and Gladys the number for Alterstudio. Kevin Alter picked up the phone.
“The thing that’s most interesting about houses is the type of experiences they engender,” says Alter, the founder of Alterstudio Architects. “Modern is a spatial idea, a tectonic idea. It’s tectonically clear. We’re not faking things…Javier and Gladys value their privacy, but they also wanted a great expanse.”
The couple has two little boys, and wanted a one-story home that served both of their needs: Gladys loves to entertain, Javier is more a walk-around-the-house-barefoot kind of guy. And of course, there were all those trees. “They bought a piece of land that they realized was a lot larger than they imagined they would want or need, so the one thing they wanted to do was have a house that would give them the ability to appreciate all that land,” Ernesto says. “Which fortunately, is a desire very close to our heart.”
While Alter shuns terms like ‘contemporary’ to sum up their work, Alterstudio Architects’ style is distinctive for its tendency to bring nature in, rather than shut it out. In a world that was more menacing, the wealthy built castles for protection; now, barricaded by our own cars and computers, we crave dwellings that restore our relationship to the outside. Behold the corner windows, glass hallways, and skylights favored by many modern architects, including Alter.
But how can you invite nature in, when your hill slope looks down on the trappings of a thoroughly industrialized world? In the fall of 2010, Alterstudio got to work.
Pulling into the driveway of Javier and Gladys’s home, a sleek façade greets you —there’s a brick wall with individual bricks jutting out just so, a huge front door, right angles everywhere you look. But it’s not ostentatious, and that’s because the house reaches long into the forest. As a result, the expanse is there, it’s just not advertised to the rest of Westlake Drive.
And speaking of Westlake Drive, and that oh-so-troublesome view? Alterstudio turned the view around entirely. The house is now situated so that its main windows look up into the trees, which creates a sound barrier from the street—that’s because windows bleed noise, but walls fortify much better.
“This is my wife’s dream room,” chuckles Javier, leading us from the foyer into the main living room. Gladys—as you’ll remember, the entertainer of the family—got her wish, with a space that affords tons of seating and nooks of conversation, as well as a big picture window that looks out onto the family’s pool. It’s there you encounter Javier’s dream room.
“I think Javier was most excited about the barbecue,” Alter says, and judging by Javier’s grin, he’s right. Said barbecue is part of a larger outdoor grilling area, complete with a small “feeder window” that attaches to the kitchen, where you can hand beers right outside to guests. And though a fountain attached to the pool blocks out any remaining street noise entirely, the residence is already shockingly quiet, outside and in.
Back inside, a glass hallway leads you from the kitchen and entertainment wing of the house to the family rooms, with a windowed playroom for the boys that seems nestled in the trees. Javier’s and Gladys’s bedroom, with its corner windows and overlook deck, brings to mind an extremely sophisticated tree house, making Gladys remark that she feels like she’s in a spa every time she wakes up.
“Part of our job as architects is to draw out the things that would help create a more meaningful life for our clients,” Alter says, beaming at the room, the couple, their evident happiness. “Just like this one, we like to build structures that can help them get there.”
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