Walk Through Two Unique Austin Residences Made with Peaceful and Organic Materials
North Arrow Studio lets us into their collaborative design process for these contemporary homes
Local architecture firm North Arrow Studio is known for its ability to craft beautiful and practical homes, balancing a design language that feels both familiar and innovative. Principal and Founder Francisco Arrendondo and Project Architect Alicia Pierce walked us through two contemporary homes, one a fully custom residence on a steep lot and the other a spec home nestled among live oaks.
Lean On Me
How do you design a home that checks all of your client’s boxes? Just ask architects Francisco Arrendondo and Alicia Pierce of North Arrow Studio. In 2019, they were hired to build a 3,700-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bathroom home on the edge of Austin in the Barton Creek Habitat Preserve, a 4,100-acre green space with endangered songbirds, rolling hills and striking vistas. The homeowners, a young couple from California, wanted city life without the hustle and bustle, as well as a flexible home with room to grow. (They’ve since welcomed their first child.) And while the lot provided a peaceful setting, its topography was challenging.
“It was very steep and that became the driving force behind the design,” Arrendondo says. “From the street to the back of the property, it rises more than fifty feet,” Pierce adds. “Finding somewhere to land with the house was a big challenge because there was also a large drainage easement.”
To make the most of the views, while allowing for flexibility, a tiered, two-volume plan was devised. The lower massing was placed on the flattest part of the lot, while the second rests on top, balanced by concrete beams in lieu of a traditional foundation.
The look, which leans both midcentury and modern, is an homage to the Hill Country with local limestone, as well as glass, steel, stucco and character-heavy cedar cladding. “There was a chance that both the exterior and interiors could look cold over lived-in, so we wanted to make sure that the materials felt handcrafted and natural,” Arrendondo says. “The streamlined front elevation is a nod to traditional masonry techniques in Texas,” Pierce adds. “Rather than going with modern, crisp stone, we went with something you’d still find in a town like Fredericksburg.” Inside, varying woods, terrazzo and tile play up the midcentury modern aesthetic.
When it came to the floor plan, the site’s unique challenges worked in their favor to yield a flowing layout. There’s the sunken living room, patio and pool, while a few more steps lead to the office and lounge. The playroom and bedrooms are farther up before finally arriving at the primary suite. Another unique benefit to the steep site and subsequent planning was privacy.
“The site provided some opportunity to be higher off the street level,” Arrendondo says. Windows from a steel fabricator and glass installer in the main living spaces incorporated some of the home’s steel framing, allowing for custom dimensions, as well as plenty of natural light and unobstructed views. In other spaces, like in the primary suite’s bathroom and stairwell, skylights were added.
One of the home’s most distinct features is a wooden screen in the western-facing primary bedroom. It’s the best direction for views, but with the strong Texas sun, the architects conducted 3D modeling and sun studies to find a “screen design that would provide the most shade and most views,” Pierce says.
Overall, the home is an example of architecture that is adaptable, clever and respectful of its setting. And while there was a fair share of difficulties, including limited construction during the pandemic, the homeowners love their peaceful suburban getaway.
Tree X Tree House
Bouldin Creek is one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods, and for good reason. Originally created at the turn of the century as one of Austin’s first suburbs, there are homes from a range of periods, including historic charmers, bungalow-style one-stories and sleek new builds all tucked between towering live oaks.
When it came to a spec home designed in tandem by North Arrow Studio with interiors by Slic Design, the biggest challenge was building a home on a lot full of protected oaks. While one tree can be tough to work around, this lot had nine.
“The house is set back farther than typical to accommodate the trees,” Pierce says. “We tiptoed in every way possible. The slab is cantilevered in some places, while there’s even a spot where a tree goes through the roof.”
The City of Austin views any tree with a trunk more than nine inches in diameter as protected. You can only affect a certain percentage of a root zone, and it’s similar with branches. The architects worked with arborists as well throughout the initial design process.
“Just like with Lean On Me house, these types of unique properties give us a chance to think about houses in a different way,” Arrendondo says. This house started as a spec home but was purchased during framing, allowing customization later during construction, including the home’s flex design which has been turned into a music studio, a special element that wouldn’t have been initially designed for.
“With spec homes, we want to make sure that they are adaptable for a lot of different people, but that the homeowner can really see themselves living there,” Arredondo says.
The design is pretty straightforward with a true focus on the landscaping and blending in with a modest scale and square footage. It sits at 3,600 square feet with three bedrooms and four-and-a-half bathrooms.
“We wanted to make the architecture as quiet as we could and make it relate with the neighborhood,” Arrendono says. “The materials and its set-back massing make it feel like it could’ve already been there. It’s more about the trees than the house.” Furthermore, the trees and the home’s particular location on the lot provide plenty of privacy. In addition, alley access was a way to change up the home’s floor plan.
“This property has alley access, which helped us breakdown the programming as we’re able to have some spaces at the back you wouldn’t typically have,” Arrendondo says. There’s a detached garage with a guest bedroom and tree-shaded cabana. “When you look at the front elevation, it’s scaled to pedestrian level rather than a house dominated by a garage,” he adds.
While this home’s topography brought its own challenges, like Lean On Me, it was a chance to showcase architectural expertise and fascinating solutions, and further support the lot’s trees for years to come.