The Art of Living

The Art of Living

Blending Modern design and a natural warmth, this family home by Alterstudio is a suburban retreat in the trees

by Hannah Morrow
Photographs by Casey Dunn
Styling by Katie Volk

It came as no surprise to learn that Kevin Alter, of architectural firm Alterstudio, has dabbled in ceramics. “I’ve had a former life as a potter, in college. I love when you take a piece off the wheel and your hand prints on it or you put it in the kiln and it shows flashes from the flames,” says Alter. “The goal isn’t perfection. The goal is a controlled serendipity.”

The Sugar Shack home, named for the street on which the Westlake lot sits, is a flawless example of such a process. The building fits like a puzzle piece — slipping between trees and perching on stilts among the shifting elevation. It lies on the left side of the jagged property, its back end angled to cantilever over a large drop-off. Alter refers to these potential complications, like large live oaks and a full-blown cliff, as opportunities. “With our work, we begin by wondering what’s good about it and how do you make it better and how to suppress what could be problematic,” says Alter. “This little motion of cranking the plan keeps it with the contour of the land, and it also gives you a beautiful condition that when you’re upstairs, you’re either looking into the courtyard, which is a lovely little world, or into the tree canopy.”

“We love the thoughtful way the house was designed with the lot’s topography,” says Katie Henry, who hired the firm with her husband, Stanton. “We knew we loved their aesthetic, so we just gave them some basic parameters and let them go to town on the design. I’d describe it as modern, with a slight nod to midcentury. It’s understated and unfussy, but when you get up close, you notice all the little design details that make it special.”

Like a finely tailored suit, the simplicity of the home has everything to gain in the way it hangs just right on the Henry family. Though the building is modern, with clean lines of steel, cement, and fumed oak, its abstract qualities allow for the appreciation of patterns and pleasures of floor-to-ceiling windows and open-concept living. “The home is something special that came out of the partnership rather than us using them as a vehicle to make our art,” says Alter, who designed the project with the firm’s partners, Tim Whitehill and Ernesto Cragnolino, and project manager Daniel Shumaker. “We’re trying to build something that has a life of its own.”

alterstudio architecture austin sugar shack modern
The dining area is nestled into the angled home. Alter says the Henrys didn’t need a formal dining room but still desired something special within the large open-concept kitchen and living space. “We have this plush banquette inside the wall,” says Alter of the built-in bench. “It was a clever solution to make a space but still allow it to be handsome.”
alterstudio architecture austin sugar shack modern
The front door leads into the living space, which is furnished with a mix of new and vintage pieces. Katie says they wanted the style to be “sleek, but bright, warm, and comfortable, not sterile.” The ’60s-era sofa, which sat in the living room of Stanton’s grandmother, was reupholstered in a navy velvet geometric print. “I like a clean, neutral base, but sometimes that feels too cold in a modern design, so we warmed it up with color, texture, and pattern with the finishes and furnishings,” says Katie. “All of the natural sunlight also adds warmth and depth.” The full-length glass windows slide open to the courtyard.
alterstudio architecture austin sugar shack modern
The master sits at the back of the house. In total, the home features four bedrooms and three bathrooms.
alterstudio architecture austin sugar shack modern
Alter recognizes the necessary correlation between clean (i.e. uncluttered) living and storage space; with that in mind, much of the home’s storage is ample but subtle. This large piece of black steel in the living room disguises a closet. “[The metal] is not finished. It’s the way it came out of the factory. We just waxed it,” says Alter. There’s a raw power, he says, of using natural, often industrial-leaning materials in an unmanipulated state. “It’s about the engagement of mistakes,” says Alter. “It’s not striving for perfection but for a balance of happenstance and nature. I can’t do anything quite as beautiful as that, but I like to show it.”
alterstudio architecture austin sugar shack modern
The structure combines modern, clean lines of steel, cement, and fumed oak with abstract design and patterns.
alterstudio architecture austin sugar shack modern
The polished kitchen, which boasts a glass backsplash and a tucked-away pantry hidden on the right, has organizational features that Alter likes to include on the firm’s projects. The backsplash has a lower band that catches plugs. Similarly, a vertical steel stripe on the left wall holds all light switches, and a panel on the ceiling gathers all lighting. “We don’t want to sit a big, ugly faceplate on this beautiful wood wall,” says Alter.
alterstudio architecture austin sugar shack modern
Katie Henry describes her home as modern, with a slight nod to midcentury.

Read More From the Architecture Issue | October 2018


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