Austin architect direct the focus of their residential design outdoors, celebrating the live oaks that claimed the land first.
When they purchased a property on Sacramento Drive in South Austin, the new owners knew they needed to tear down the 800-square-foot rundown home. However, they weren’t so sure of what to do with the live oak tree that dominated the center of the lot, so they turned to MF Architecture (512-432-5137) for help.
The lot had scared off other buyers who didn’t want to deal with possibly removing the tree, which was just small enough (18 inches in diameter and 40 feet tall) that it was not protected by an Austin ordinance and could be torn down. But Matt Fajkus, principal of MF Architecture, saw an opportunity to make the tree a center point and anchor of a newly constructed home.
“Our goal was to make all the space in the house have a relationship to the tree since it was such a dominant force,” Fajkus says. “We used that [concept] as a driver for the whole project.” He and his team quickly devised a courtyard scheme and dubbed the project, “Tree House.” “One of the things we attempt to do is blur the line between inside and outside,” says Fajkus, who is also a tenuretrack professor at the UT School of Architecture. “If we can directly tie the architecture to the land, then we can restore a connection to nature. This helps it transcend and become something timeless.”
Trees are an important element of the quality of life in Austin, not only in terms of historical significance, but also in their contributions to the city’s aesthetics and environmental health. For Miró Rivera Architects (512-477-7016), another Austin-based firm, trees are a major factor when embarking on a residential design. “The first thing we do when we’re starting a project is get a survey of the lot and locate the important trees,” says Rosa Rivera, founding partner and business principal. “Then we get an arborist to identify and mark the trees and tell us about their health before we even begin drawing anything. It’s a big deal.”
It’s unusual that a tree is removed despite the challenges of building around it, Rivera says. “Sometimes you build a structure around a tree, and with others you might design windows and openings that would have a view to them. Or, you might carve out space from the decking around one,” she says. “Every situation is different.”
At its Stonehedge property remodel, the firm built an aluminum trellis around two large trees, leaving holes for each to grow through, with the trellis and trees offering shade over the home’s long terrace, providing for a usable space during the hot Texas summers.
When developers or homeowners need help removing or transplanting a tree, they often turn to an expert firm like Environmental Design of Houston (281-376-4260). One of the company’s high-profile cases involved cyclist Lance Armstrong, who hired EDI to move a grand 150-year-old live oak tree from one side of the lot to the other while he was building his estate, with the tree relocation costing a reported $200,000.
Although Chief Operating Officer Mark Merit would not confirm the cost of that particular project, he says it’s not an inexpensive process. “The business we’re in involves moving weight and keeping a tree alive,” Merit says. “To do that, you have to take the roots and soil with it. Soil weighs a lot. So the bigger the tree, the more soil [there is], and the more expensive it is.”