Preserving Austin’s Heritage Oak Trees is Paramount to Residential Design-Firm
Unicus Developments saves centuries-old trees while building stunning new modern housing in Austin
For Francisco Uzcategui, principal and founder of Houston- and Austin-based residential design-build firm Unicus Developments, deciding to preserve centuries-old trees during the planning of his latest project was a no-brainer. Not only does one of the trees, which stands nearly 40 feet tall, grace the adjacent home with dappled light, a tranquil view and treehouse-esque atmosphere, but Uzcategui feels it’s his due diligence to the land.
The new development, FIVE — a private, gated collection of five architecturally impressive homes — will be complete by winter 2024 with prices beginning at $12.48 million. The tree, which flanks the final home at the back of the site, an 8,200 square-foot modern masterpiece, is a key part of the home’s charms.
“You can see the tree from every vantage point of the house, from the family room to the kitchen to the principal bedroom,” he says. The tree-moving process, which included a 12-foot relocation from the corner of the lot to the center, took six months and was accomplished with help from EDI (Environmental Design, Inc.). “They did Ground Zero in New York and the Post Oak Corridor in Houston,” he says. “We used them for the transplant, and they also have a tree farm.” Unicus also looked to EDI to source more than 30 oaks planted throughout the five-and-half-acre estate.
In order to move the tree successfully and ensure its survival during the critical five-year post-transplant period, months of effort went into preparation, guided by the experts at EDI. For the past 40+ years, the firm has been the premier provider for large-scale tree supply and transplants in the U.S. and abroad, offering nursery establishment, turnkey tree harvest, installation and more. While moving a more than 100-year-old tree was a daunting effort in itself, geography offered yet another challenge. The solid stone ground meant that special equipment would have to be used to carefully remove the tree and root it in its new home, a successful operation due to EDI’s proprietary technology. Unicus spent $189,000 on this process alone, which developed a sense of a courtyard with the tree as the focal point and blurred the lines between indoor and outdoor living.
“The beauty of doing this with EDI is that the company’s success rate is ninety-eight percent,” he says. The City of Austin requires a five-year bond to ensure the tree thrives. “Plus, EDI has a five-year preservation plan and will maintain it for the homeowner during that critical survival time. They come to assess it each month.”
While the process was lengthy and arduous, it’s even more monumental given that it was done for a residential project. “We’ve been told by the City arborist that this is the only transplant of this nature that has been done for a single-family residence. It’s more common with commercial projects,” he says. Some of EDI’s clients, which range from resorts, universities, master-planned communities and commercial spaces, include Stanford University, the University of Texas, the San Diego Zoo, The Woodlands and Pebble Beach Resorts.
At the end of the day, Uzcategui and his team are able to salvage heritage oaks because they control the development and have budgeted for it.
“We believe this will set an innovative example of how developments can complement a space and create a sense of serenity and appreciation for home design,” he adds.
As a centrally located development, potential buyers are offered a chance to live within 10 minutes of downtown but also have a fairly flat one-acre plot. “A rare occurrence in Austin,” Uzcategui remarks. Rolling hills, flourishing trees and privacy set the stage, while consideration of the site, orientation, and landscaping were all highly considered during the design and planning process, which was led by Mexico City-based architect, David Curiel.
“We have been working with David for the last ten years,” he says. The now 33-year-old architect has filled each unique home with stunning finish-outs, as well as floor plans that are visually impactful yet practical.
For example, residence IV, nicknamed the “Brass Door House,” combines a traditional Hill Country stone facade with modern glass volumes and six-foot-by-10-foot brass panels, which will patina over time.
“The inspiration for the Brass House is the Old World with heavy stone that makes it feel like it’s been here for years,” says the architect. Inside, there are two kitchens separated by a pantry, one facing the living room, ideal for entertaining, and the other more for prep and everyday cooking. During the private reveal for the community, open to neighbors, media and clients, on April 18, Unicus brought in contemporary art and provided cocktails and appetizers from award-winning chef Matthew Peters, former executive sous chef of The French Laundry.
“We are curators of experiences and the art of living and feel like homes should serve as a canvas,” Uzcategui says. The idea for the development company was formed from his passion for design and construction, further rooted in an appreciation for the arts throughout Latin America, Europe, and the U.S. “We’ve carried those design pillars and inspiration throughout the design and build of FIVE,” he says.
While each home has a one-of-a-kind plan, they share some similarities with an earth tone exterior that complements the Texas landscape, three- or four-car garages with charging stations, a dog-washing station, spa-like bathrooms, a pool, private fenced green space and built-in lighting to showcase homeowners’ art collections.
Property I, which will stand 6,700 square feet, has triangle-arched windows, five bedrooms, five bathrooms and will be complete by May 2024. Property II, the second home when you enter the main driveway, is set on a 1.1-acre lot and is the second largest home at 8,240 square feet, while the fifth residence, is still under design and will be complete at the end of next year. Property I has sold but the rest are still available for purchase through Moreland Properties.