James Bond meets Midcentury Modern. Italianate villa - with a sky bridge. A white stucco and steel home primarily designed for cars. These are some of the luxury home styles you’ll find in Austin, Texas, where the transformation of the city from laid-back college town to high-tech magnet is rapidly reshaping the architectural landscape.
New homes are going up fast. Single-family home permits are up 138% over the past five years, according to census data. The median price for single-family homes has increased 48.2% from $250,000 in April 2012 to $370,600 in April 2017, according to the Austin Board of Realtors.
Meanwhile, city ordinances designed to limit the size and density of new homes have had some unintended consequences. To get around size restrictions, homeowners are adding more carports and screened-in porches, which qualify for a larger exemption than garages. The result: some odd workarounds and construction quirks that add to the eclectic look of many new or renovated homes.
The current landscape in Austin
Right now, the landscape is “fluid,” says Matt Fajkus, principal of Austin firm Matt Fajkus Architecture. “Sometimes, while we are working on a house, the entire neighborhood will change,” he says. “It’s an interesting challenge. Are you designing something for the way the neighborhood is now or how the neighborhood will be?”
In older neighborhoods near downtown, tiny, dilapidated shacks sit across the street from new boxy white contemporaries. Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired mansions are cattycorner to what look like breezy beach bungalows.
Mr. Fajkus, who is also an associate professor of architecture at the University of Texas, recently finished designing a 1,000-square-foot, one-bedroom home in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood that cost about $1 million to build. The modern white stucco and steel house was designed around a couple’s vast vintage-car collection and includes 2,000 square feet of garage and outdoor space. The home’s upper-level cantilevers are 20 feet out from the box-shaped lower level.
The owners, John and Lisa Weinberger, moved from Chicago to Austin in 2014, when many homes in Bouldin Creek were rundown. They bought a new four-bedroom spec house, then bought the lot next door and built their new modern home - mainly used as a place to put their cars.
Is Austin losing its identity?
“Houses are coming down by the week,” says Mr. Weinberger, 85, an auto-dealership owner and car racer. Just down the block from the Weinberger property, a plain 1,412-square-foot house is listed for sale - with marketing that suggests it is ideal as a teardown or gut renovation. (“What a lot!”) The asking price: $650,000.
The rapid change has some locals fearing that Austin will lose its identity. “It’s not just the streetscape and character we are losing, it’s also visual elements of our city’s past,” says Kathie Tovo, an Austin City Council member and the city’s mayor pro tempore.
Luxury is being redefined
Scott and Cindy Trainer recently custom built a 3,700-square-foot, four-bedroom brick-and-stucco home for over $1 million last year in the Zilker Park neighborhood. Asked to describe the style, Mr. Trainer hesitates: It’s a combination of Midcentury Modern and classic James Bond, he says, pointing out both the long cedar roof overhangs and the floor-to-ceiling steel-framed glass walls.
Austin architect Michael Hsu, whose firm designed the Trainers’ house, says “luxury is being redefined here.” The only unifying stylistic theme he sees is what he calls “casual modernism,” which he describes as modernism that is authentic and accessible. His clients are moving to Austin from places like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco because they want a lifestyle shift; they don’t want the kinds of homes they’ve left behind. “Everyone deserves a place to live of their choosing. There’s not a prescription for Austin for how you should be.”
Mr. Trainer, 57, moved to Austin in 1982 from upstate New York after visiting his brother. He got an environmental-engineering job and moved to the Zilker Park area, first buying a small bungalow for $56,000, renovating it and selling it for $100,000 in 1991. That same year he bought a ¼-acre lot for $50,000 and built a three-story home, selling it in 2011 for $1.3 million because he and his 46-year-old wife, a real-estate agent, wanted a home better suited for their two children.
Their new house replaced a larger, 4,500-square-foot home with a pool they bought for $650,000 that hadn’t been updated since 1959. Mr. Trainer, who became a commercial real-estate developer in 2004, had admired the property for years because it is on a bluff overlooking a large park and part of the Austin skyline.
The house, slightly angled, is designed with minimal windows facing the street. Instead, all-glass walls on the back of the home face the park and expansive skyline. It has concrete floors, soaring ceilings and a splayed back that folds around a courtyard and swimming pool. The master bedroom and bathroom are in a wing that is 4 feet higher than the rest of the house, a way to get separation, since the subdivision doesn’t allow homes with more than one story.
The “McMansion Regulations”
Currently, the City of Austin has what it calls “McMansion regulations” that limit the scale and bulk of new construction, remodels, and additions to make sure homes are compatible with existing neighborhoods.
While the goal of the McMansion ordinance was to preserve the character of neighborhoods and has helped curb size, some detractors say it has also had negative effects. For example, carports don’t count as square footage under the ordinance, but garages do. As a result, more carports have been built, affecting the appearance of the neighborhoods.
Recently, the city has proposed a new land-development code that may further change the face of neighborhoods. Dubbed CodeNext, the goal is to update and consolidate regulations and deal with the issues of neighborhood density, affordability and livability. “The goal is to preserve what we love and improve what we don’t,” says Alina Carnahan, who is working on CodeNext for the city.
Jamie Chandlee, a 2005 graduate of the University of Texas, moved back to Austin in 2010 to take a job with Facebook, which had just opened an office there. She met her future husband, Blake, who also worked for Facebook, and in 2012 they moved into a five-bedroom, five-bathroom mansion they bought in the Tarrytown neighborhood.
Two years ago, the couple embarked on a $300,000 addition to their 6,000-square-foot home, built in the Italianate style, with a red-tile roof and rounded rooms. They wanted a playroom but couldn’t change the footprint of the house because of limits on “impervious surfaces” - which is any surface like a roof or driveway - that can’t absorb rainwater.
So they asked Hugh Jefferson Randolph - the home’s original architect - to enlarge the space over the garage and link it to the second story of the main house with a sky bridge. The addition gives their Old World-style home some decidedly modern touches.
Variety makes Austin unique
Since they moved to Tarrytown, there has been nonstop construction in the neighborhood, Mrs. Chandlee, 34, says. Around the corner, a modern home sits next to a small bungalow. A few doors down a nondescript two-story, five-bedroom, seven-bathroom home with a three-car garage and a swimming pool is replacing a 2,972-square-foot ranch house built in the 1950s.
“There’s a lot of variety. That’s what makes Austin unique,” says Mrs. Chandlee. “The thing that bothers me the most is just that there are people out there who are just so desperate to sell that they can’t wait to get fair market value on their home,” he said. “I mean, honestly, wholesaling in my opinion has a place in the marketplace.”
By Nancy Keates