Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Mueller ramble

Gwen and I went for a walk through Mueller today, and because it’s Sunday, there were a lot of open houses. We stopped in six. It was educational.

The first two we stopped in were of a small number of showcase, architect-designed, “parade of homes” houses facing the park. These all have seven-digit pricetags. The others were all builder houses. The contrast between them was interesting. The architect-designed houses were profligate in their use of fancy materials and construction techniques. One of them had a floating staircase where each tread was supported from the ceiling by a serpentine square-section tube, and slatted overhangs above the windows that in total consisted of many hundreds of small tubes, each screwed down in four places. Swingarm mounts for flat-panel TVs abounded. Another had a rooftop porch (accessible by elevator!) with a sink shaped like a martini glass.

The builder homes, in contrast, were all swaddled in carpeting that could charitably be described as “disposable,” and generally had cheap finishes and cheap materials except on certain bullet-point features. We were struck by one home, listed for $608K, that had pine cabinets stained to look like walnut, but a vast expanse of marble countertops in the kitchen practically equal to our house’s floor space. On a house that was listed for more than $500K, the interior doors were plastic. Most the builder houses felt very suburban, with fussy trim, “great rooms,” and upstairs playrooms for kids. There was only one house that had a (sort of) open-plan first floor. While all the homes have some level of LEED certification and meet some kind of green-building standards, this struck me again as a bullet point to be checked off rather than as an actual design goal. Houses had incredibly high ceilings (whose main purpose seems to be making lightbulb-changing difficult), but no ceiling fans. None of the homes made any provision for rainwater collection, and when Gwen quizzed the realtor at one of the architect-designed homes as to why, she answered “there wasn’t room.” Which struck me as unlikely—I doubted it had ever been contemplated.

I was struck by the way quantity is prioritized over quality: maximum floor space seems to be the number one priority. Yard space was very limited—I know that short setbacks were mandated for Mueller, and I can’t really complain about small back yards in a city, but those are some of the very few features of the development that feel urban. All of the houses were at least twice as big as our house, and were clearly not designed with people like us in mind. Something that traded space for quality of construction, without going overboard on showy, labor-intensive features, and that reflected a more urban aesthetic. There is a single row of boxy, modern townhouses, but that’s the only part of Mueller like that, and we didn’t get a chance to look inside them.

17 Comments

  1. The only urban thing about Mueller so far is the layout – i.e., the sidewalk/alley configuration. Try going to another development by one of the same builders and walking to six open houses. Personally, I would have preferred to fill the whole thing with townhouses. I hope some of what is left to be built will be like that.

  2. Agreed with both of y’all – and the Town Center is looking more and more like a mirage, not that it’s enough to save the development from suburbanism anyways. (Don’t tell them they aren’t very new urban, though. Painful personal experience).

  3. As a resident of Mueller, have to disagree. The yards are low maintenance, and the shared green space is brilliant for families with children. But more than the buildings in Mueller is the sense of community. We all have a vision that our kids will grow up together, we will be able to walk to parks, be close to downtown, and hopefully one day soon, be able to walk our kids to elementary school. We have formed a babysitting co-op, a plant fest, a halloween carnival, and everyone I’ve met LOVES living here. We believe the town center will happen once the economy turns around. Trick or treating in this neighborhood was such a fun festive event; walkable streets, friendly neighbors greeting our children, and genuinely glad to see them in costume. I can’t say enough great things about this neighborhood.

  4. Meg, you are of course welcome to disagree with me, and I am honestly happy to hear that people are enjoying living in Mueller and finding a sense of community there.

    But I don’t see anything in what you wrote that amounts to disagreeing with anything that I wrote. Or any of the other commenters here.

  5. hey adam,

    I think meg at least specifically disagreed with your point about the yards.

    The yards are really a taste thing — the lots are a fixed size and you can easily choose a lot and or a plan that attempts to give you the compromise you are looking for. However if a large yard is something you are looking for – then you ain’t gonna find it. There are plenty of smaller plans which would allow you to get a bigger yard — however as in everything in this capitalist life once the size of the house and yard together will enable the builder to build a bigger house and sell it for more they will do so… this really is not the

  6. Our house has high ceilings and ceiling fans. We spend considerably less on electricity than in our old place, which was 1700 sq. ft. due to the green build, even though we’ve almost doubled our square footage. Carpet and finish outs are the choice of the homeowners. If you saw cheap carpet, it’s be cause that’s what the owner chose, or the builder didn’t have an owner yet.

    Anyway, it’s all a matter of taste, and I feel that Mueller offers something for all types of owners. (but I’m with you on the martini glass sink, what up w/ that?) There are row homes (townhouses); yard homes of varying sizes 1200 sq. ft.–3800 sq. ft., an affordable home program, and some high end million dollar places.

  7. its disappointing that my reply was truncated :-( — oh well I will not revise my opus… and I will slog through the capcha once again :-(

  8. I’m a bit surprised that the houses you looked at did not have ceiling fans. I live in Mueller and have a fan in nearly every room.
    Some of the short comings you pointed out are being corrected by the residents. Many have installed rainbarrels and compost bins. A few homes have solar panels on their roofs and another 30 or so signed up for solar, but the Austin Energy program is currently on hold.
    I think there are many features you may have missed. The water tower near 51st St is for reclaimed water that is then used in the sprinklers for the parks and common greens. Future phases will include smaller lots with smaller homes.
    Anyone that says the town center will not be built is just trying to pick a fight or egg us Muelerites on. The town center will actually be larger and denser then originally planned.
    What did you think of the affordable homes? 25% of the homes you walked past were affordable. I’ve lived here for a year and still can’t tell which are affordable and that the point.

    Mike

  9. Agreeing with Meg – the cheap stuff you saw isn’t all that indicative, from my experience. My wife and I live in a standard pacific house in Mueller with a much lower price point than the ones you mention, and it’s very high quality (as attested to by independent inspectors we hired). Though we do have plastic doors. :(

    Definitely DO agree about the builders’ tendency towards suburban design. If you think about it, it’s extraordinarily rare for a large builder like any of these (except maybe Muskin) to be doing any development within the city limits (in this city or any other) because there just aren’t usually any big plots of land to do it on. So over the years, they’ve evolved to match the needs of their primary clients – suburbanites. It’s a stretch for them to work with Mueller, because many folks here have a much more urban and modern aesthetic. As with anything else, it’s eventually up to the homeowners – if you want to go with the default fussy trim, you can, but you don’t have to (we didn’t). It’s certainly no Agave, from a design point of view, but where it wins in spades is the community, and the shared spaces.

  10. I live in Mueller, and love it.

    I have a perfectly sized home for me and my expanding family on a smally lot with almost no lawn which I think it great compared to my former truly suburban house with a huge lawn. I truly don’t have room to collect rain water, nor do I have a good reason to. (My patio does not require water). As mentioned my yard has become the shared green spaces which is maintained with reclaimed water from the water tower at 51st street.

    I don’t care if others don’t feel that we don’t fit into this definition or that. I live here and I like it. If you don’t like it, live elsewhere.

  11. A major problem with Mueller is that it was built on public land with a promise of including all income groups. Instead, they decided to ban middle-class families. Very “progressive”. Probably 40-60% of Austin families with kids fall in The Gap between affordable housing and the market based housing.

    (And the promised light rail may never come, but that’s not Mueller’s fault.)

  12. I also live in Mueller and love it. So, you can take my bias there for what it’s worth. I agree that the majority of these builders usually build in the suburbs so you end up with somewhat of a suburban idea in the interior choices. Honestly though that is easily changed by the buyer’s selections and the builders changed as they experienced what these new-to-them buyers were looking for. Mueller couldn’t have been built this far with only custom, inner city builders as there are over 400 homes built here in less than two year’s time. That is too high/quick for any small time builder.

    I’m not sure where you saw no ceiling fans as we have them in nearly every room, standard. Maybe you went in one where the buyer requested them not put in? To add their own custom ones later? The star rating system from Austin Energy is a real thing — we have way lower bills than our old home. It’s how we were able to afford a higher mortgage here in Mueller.

    You could easily add a rain collection system to nearly any home here. And as someone mentioned, there are lots who have placed solar panels on their homes. In fact, several of these homes come

  13. To clarify a bit: I saw two houses that were new, never occupied builder houses, two that were previously occupied builder houses, and two never occupied architect houses. So with a never-occupied house, you’re buying what’s been built, not what you ordered—or what someone else ordered.

    Adding a 50-gallon rainbarrel or two is trivial (I’ve done it). Adding a serious rainwater collection system of 500-2000 gallons would take a little more planning, and ideally we’d see houses built with that in mind.

    A new house with high ceilings may have a lower utility bill than an older house with low ceilings, but it won’t be as low as if it had been designed to really maximize efficiency. There’s no way to avoid the fact that heating and cooling that extra volume takes energy.

    I also must question the assertion that Austin builders wouldn’t have the capacity to develop Mueller as quickly. There are a lot of small design-build firms in this town doing interesting work. While perhaps no one of them could build as many homes as quickly as any one of the builders at Mueller, we could have had more of them doing smaller sets of homes, which would have resulted in more variety (and, in my opinion, better architecture). Of course, this would have been less convenient for the master contractor. Considering the outcry over an out-of-town company being awarded the contract to rebuild the City of Austin’s website, I’m surprised in hindsight there wasn’t more of a “local build” movement with Mueller.

    Finally: If you don’t like it, live elsewhere. I do. The fact that Mueller has an HOA means that I could never contemplate living there anyhow. I’m having my house painted right now—with stripes.

  14. Didn’t I warn you?

    As for rain barrels, I recall seeing that you had to get approval from the HOA to even put them in at Mueller. And as for their use, if you garden at all, even containers, rain water is better for your plants than tap water here – even if you don’t care at all about water conservation, it’s still a smart thing to do.

    As for the

  15. ugh. Cut off? WTF. As for the new urban issue, ccosart points out that this was public land, so the rest of us do, in fact, have some interest in how this turns out, even absent the damage to the new urban brand being done by those inside and outside Mueller who incorrectly call it urban.

  16. Hey Adam, thanks for stopping by. I agree with you – people who don’t like it don’t have to live here. M1EK’s point about it being public land is very valid. The builders make what sells easily, quickly and for the most profit while maintaining their reputation.

    I enjoy looking at other developments like SOL Las Casas Verde, and baddmom has a point, the speed and scale of what happened here has largely meshed with production builders. The Garden Courts / Streetman townhomes are a little different – and in smaller numbers.

    I’m going to save my water rant for a separate post as they apparently get truncated.

    My biases: I live here and I’m a realtor / EcoBroker

  17. As for rainwater collection, the realtor you spoke to might not be the best spokesperson for the development ;)

    One thing that might be interesting is the Pecan Street Project – it’s aims include a Smart Irrigation plan – not too sure on the details yet.
    It would certainly feel less suburban here to me if there wasn’t so much grass and irrigation in the small parts of the neighborhood – even if the grass is watered from “reclaimed water”.

    I like public parks as much as the next parent, but all the small grass annoys me.

    Adam, I hope you’re going for horizontal stripes, not vertical ones.

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