Gwen and I did the AIA Austin Homes tour over the weekend. It was a mixed bag.

There were eleven homes on the tour, of which we saw eight, I think. Of these, there were two houses that we could imagine, at some point, aspiring to live in. The rest were straight out of lifestyles of the rich and famous; I’m pretty sure one of them had been featured in Met Home.

Gwen and I are closing on a new house soon. It’s not a big place–in fact, at 1100 sqft, it’s about as small as we could comfortably go. Before we even move in, we’re going to have a contractor move some walls around to optimize the use of space. We’ve gotten down to the nitty-gritty, measuring how many linear feet of bookshelf space we need and figuring out how to allocate it. Things like that. We’ve got some money to spend, but not a fortune. In short, we’re dealing with a lot of constraints, and trying to be creative and efficient within those constraints. We were hoping to get some good ideas for our own project.

Most of the houses we looked at on the tour were not designed around constraints. We looked at two that happened to be next door to each other (at 2406 Woodmont and 1710 Forest Trail) where the client’s brief to the architect seemed to be “make it as big as possible, and spend as much money as possible doing it.” There’s no question that the workmanship was excellent, and the houses lacked nothing. But they simply to piled on one feature after another, as if the architect never had to make any hard decisions about how to fit something in. The Woodmont house was nice but uninspiring, and seemed more designed to look good in a catalog than to be lived in. A professional decorator had done the kids’ rooms, which showed no sign of their occupants’ personalities. The Forest Trail house we positively disliked–all dark wood and raw stone, as if to resemble a castle with central air and heat.

We looked at another place (1400 Hardouin Ave) that was a remodel of a really excellent early-modernist structure, where the architect had knocked some walls down, redone the kitchen, that sort of thing–the same kinds of things that Gwen and I are contemplating, only on a grander scale. We chatted with the homeowner and architect for a few minutes about the house, and the architect mentioned not being able to do certain things because of the budget. After we walked out, Gwen and I looked at each other and both started saying “what budget?”. The remodel budget for this place was clearly a lot more than our entire house + remodel budget.

We really did like one of these fantasy houses–the one I think was in Met Home (2806 Robbs Run). It was about three times larger than anything we could imagine wanting, but there were some good and interesting ideas. The shape of the place was like two tall, narrow barns running parallel with a glass box in between. The glass box was the staircase; at one end there was a massive screened-in porch with a fireplace (which, I must say, seems like the only logical place for a fireplace in a town like Austin). Everything about this place was obviously thought through and built to withstand a nuclear attack–the open-tread stairs felt like poured concrete. And–bonus–they showed excellent taste by displaying a painting by our friend Stella Alessi by the front door.

One wacky fantasy house (101 Vale) we looked at was designed by its occupant, a man appropriately named Duke. This was an enormous, rambling house detailed all over the interior with rough-hewn cedar (bark still on), which served for door frames, table legs, countertops, etc. There was a lot about this house that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves, but it definitely did have personality. It also had a secret passageway, which I commend.

There was a pair of townhouses (4905 Woodrow) by our not-so-favorite design-build shop, metrohouse. These are the guys who don’t believe in closets, and sadly, these were the only houses that were really built on something approximating a middle-class budget. These guys had constraints. Unfortunately, they don’t do a very good job working within them. They put in one or two marquee features on each house, and cheap out on everything else. The nicer of the two houses had an ipe (say ee-pay) deck and a beautiful tiled soaking pool, a screened-in porch that opened to the interior through a glass garage door. But all the windows were of the same grade you’d find in a shitty apartment building. Floors were painted concrete or plywood, walls were cinderblock or corrugated sheetmetal. No thanks. Their floor plans are confusing, if not downright hostile. One of the two houses had an industrial staircase athwart the front entry, positioned such that a tall person will nearly bean himself upon walking in. That same house had countertops made of galvanized sheetmetal that had been nipped, folded, and riveted down at all the corners, resulting in sharp edges guaranteed to draw blood whenever you accidentally walk into one; one of these is in the bathroom, and just slightly overhangs the doorway, practically inviting you to do so.

The houses we liked best were both remodels/additions. These were both outside our budget, but were what marketers call “aspirational”–that is, the sort of thing we could reasonably aspire to someday.

One (1113 Mission Ridge) was apparently designed by its occupant, and had a beautiful, low-key atmosphere. There was a huge glassed-in entry area that looked straight through to a small pool in back, but conducts to the common room to the right, which has an office off to one corner, and a hallway to (apparently) the original part of the house, which now has the bedrooms for the parents upstairs and the kids downstairs. There was nothing precious about this place, nothing staged, but it had all kinds of details that showed thought–the parent’s bedroom created a symmetric layout with a semi-open closet under the eaves on one side, and a semi-open bathroom on the opposite side; the bathroom itself was symmetric, with a sunken tub in the middle, shower to the left, and commode to the right (each in enclosures). That kind of logical thinking carried through the house, with details you might not even notice, intelligent connections between spaces, and so on.

The other of the two add-ons (1315 Cullen) preserved more of the function of the original structure (a bungalow from the 40s or 50s) as the main part of the house, with a small addition on the back, a deck, and a new guest cottage. Walking in from the back yard, we entered what might be called a mud room if it weren’t so pleasant, which led through a galley kitchen that had been jazzed up with weirdly angled counters that somehow worked well, and then onto the living room. This connected to a private suite of rooms (bathroom, office, and craft room–?) that had no doors except a big sliding door isolating the suite. The interior had probably been gutted down to the sticks, and the quality of the finish-out was beautiful. The interior was pretty conventional, but the exterior had some interesting materials choices, including a fence and a gate made out of hardipanels, giant exposed OSB beams in the construction of an awning over the yard, etc.

The homes tour cost $50, or you could do it a la carte for $5/house. Gwen and I were comped tickets because her office designed the brochures. It wasn’t worth anything near the asking price, but we’re glad we saw it. It was useful for us to see how certain kinds of lighting or furniture work in actual homes, and we saw lots of stuff we wished we could do, but not a lot in terms of design that we could emulate.