Reimagined on Multiple Levels

According to architect J.C. Schmeil, this multi-level Central Austin home presented a unique design challenge: To hone and expand on its “quirkiness” while “keeping as much of the home’s character as possible.”

Schmeil, principal of Merzbau Design Collective, was introduced to the project by frequent collaborator Jennifer Marsh, the pair sharing a design sensibility perfect for the clients’ request to improve upon what was already great. Design works best when it’s a collaborative process, says Schmeil, “so we try hard to listen to clients, to intuit their feelings about a space, and anticipate how they might inhabit a house in different ways over time.” In addition, a “primary goal for us is to connect the home to its site,” Schmeil continues, “by providing views and access to the landscape, and light that changes throughout the day.” Designing with this empathetic foresight can create future “‘moments of repose’ that allow the home’s occupants to feel a sense of refuge — these days, that seems more important than ever.”

One of the main thrusts behind the renovation was bringing some much-needed cohesion to the home’s plan. The homeowners noticed that some company would use the front door when visiting while others only used the back door. One door was “accessed up a steep and uninviting driveway,” says Schmeil; the other “via a rickety exterior switchback stair that deposited visitors onto a deck just outside the dining room.” The situation wasn’t ideal, meaning the “mandate was to bring some clarity to the entry sequence, and to create distinct spaces that felt part of a unified whole.” With that desire for cohesion, the homeowners also “wanted to open the kitchen and living area up to the backyard and pool, and to visually and physically expand the living space,” he adds.

“The critical design move was to eliminate the rickety stair and disconnect the dining room from the driveway 12 feet below,” says Schmeil. The team “inserted a new office space on the lower level, below an improved deck accessible only from the dining room and the primary bedroom suite.” This move allowed “opening up the dining room with a wall of glass that provides views of Lake Austin in the distance.” To address the problem with the conflicting entryways, Schmeil says they reworked the “entry sequence to the former ‘back’ door by designing a landscaped steel and gravel stair that ascends the hillside to a new ‘front porch’ deck,” with Aleman Design Build executing a “fantastic job” on the stair, planters and low-impact landscaping.

The team kept the existing masonry on the exterior, but replaced rotting wood siding with a simple, painted Hardie plank. Schmeil says the dark blue-grey color diminished the mass of the house among the trees on the shaded lot, affixing it naturally in the green landscape. He worked with the clients’ request to achieve a “‘beach house vibe,’ painting the walls and exposed wood beams white,” a motif carried to the kitchen’s lofted ceiling and flush cabinetry. The approach gelled with the “casual, multi-level layout of the house, and provides a neutral background for some pops of color provided by furnishings and artwork.” To bring it all together, “Rachel Henderson was brought in later in the project to provide some interior design, and did a great job of selecting finishes and fixtures that complemented the architecture and met the client’s goals,” says Schmeil.

For the new kitchen, where Marsh took the lead on details, the team transformed the space into a “visual focus,” says Schmeil, while also streamlining the cabinetry “to look more like furniture or paneling and to limit the material palette in order to achieve a visually calm effect.” Pearl White Quartzite was used for the range countertop with the added ability of wrapping up the wall as a backsplash. “The cabinets were painted Swiss Coffee by Benjamin Moore®,” explains Schmeil, “and the range hood was finished to match,” all situated beneath a skylight aligned with the wall for soft natural lighting. To contrast the touch-latch cabinets, the kitchen island was painted in Chelsea Grey and “is topped by a Black Mist granite countertop in a leathered finish.” Finally, two large pendant lights “illuminate the island and provide a sense of scale in the vaulted space.”

Like any remodel, this project brought its own unique challenges. “There were issues with water intrusion and mold, underperforming mechanical systems, substandard framing and a prolonged bidding process due to a tight construction market and the complexities of renovating a house on five levels,” says Schmeil. But ultimately, “through good communication and an iterative design process,” the resourceful team, including builder Roger Wintle, found the “right design that worked for [the clients’] needs and budget.”

“There are quite a few things about the project that I really like,” says Schmeil, “including the openness of the kitchen, the light-filled living room, and the enjoyable procession up the landscaped stairs to the front door.” For Schmeil, “the most rewarding aspect of the project is having happy clients — they were able to retain some of the quirky character of the house they loved, but now there’s a sense of calm that allows them to really relax into their home.”

“I think we are most excited about the new family space and kitchen. There is just a wonderful openness and so much natural light with the floor-to-ceiling windows and doors,” says Penny, one of the home’s owners. “The remodeled space is organic to how we live in the house now,” she continues, saying “it’s hard to remember when we didn’t have it.” Penny applauds Schmeil and the team’s ability to reimagine a house with so many challenging quirks. “The team really brought creative solutions and handled obstacles with calm professionalism,” she adds, “we feel very fortunate and look forward to many more years enjoying our ‘new’ house.”


Merzbau Design Collective

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