In the caliche and limestone hills of west Austin, where live oak and mountain cedar perch on the shores of Lake Austin like cattle drawn to water, Emily and Greg McKaskle and their baby daughter, Adeline, live in one of the greenest homes in town. You’d never know it by looking.
The McKaskles’ simple, compact, bungalow-style home was built in 2002 on a slight slope in a thick grove of trees just off a dirt road. Should you pass by the front drive (which is unlikely given that there are few other houses nearby), there isn’t much that would catch your eye. Oh, there’s a three-foot band of “D”- panel Galvalume metal under the roof eaves and an odd concrete column holding up a larger-thannormal overhang. But besides a few interesting Craftsman design details, nothing.
The McKaskle place begs an obvious question: What does a green house look like? Not so long ago, “green” meant rammed earth or straw bale walls covered in stucco. The rounded corners and earthy hideaways gave the impression that hobbits, rather than humans, lived behind the rustic wooden doors. A look at the McKaskle residence, on the other hand, suggests that a home with sustainable features can look pretty darn mainstream.
“A house doesn’t have to have a green aesthetic in order to be green,” says Peter Pfeiffer, FAIA, of Barley and Pfeiffer Architects, the Austin-based firm that designed the home. Pfeiffer and his partner, Alan Barley, AIA, incorporate environmental elements into their overall designs in a much more subtle way. Only when you take a close look do you realize how green their buildings are.
Cozy and comfortable
In 1997 Emily and Greg knocked on the door of Barley and Pfeiffer Architects after reading about them in a local magazine. “We didn’t even know green building existed, but the article convinced Greg and me that was the way we wanted to go,” says Emily, a romance novel writer. The couple liked the firm’s philosophy of mixing sustainability with traditional design. “We didn’t even interview anyone else,” she adds.
At the time, Emily and Greg, a computer programmer, resided in a small restored bungalow close to where they live now. With two big dogs and a very small yard– and thoughts of starting a family–they needed more space. Not interested in a McMansion, the couple wanted something with Craftsman-like qualities similar to their cozy home.
Not long after they read the green building article, Emily and Greg discovered Sarah Susanka’s The Not So Big House (Taunton Press, 2001). As it has for many others, the book struck a chord. “It’s all about making spaces that are comfortable for people,” Emily says.
Pfeiffer handed the couple a packet of articles and told them to start researching. They thumbed through magazines, skimmed the Internet, and photographed houses they liked. The design process took two years. “Ultimately we figured out that we wanted a certain amount of details with a certain amount of quality but also a place that was relaxed and usable,” says Greg. “We didn’t want anything overly formal.”
The result was a 2,400-square-foot, four-bedroom (one that doubles as a playroom), two-and-a-half bath house with two covered porches on a 1.8-acre lot, built for about $200 per square foot ($120 per square foot if you include the porches). The house was built by Matt and Paul Oliver of Oliver Custom Homes in Austin, and Barley and Pfeiffer project manager Paul Vetter oversaw the building process, which took a year and a half.
Pushing the edge
The home’s exterior is limestone, cement board, lap siding, and Galvalume metal. “Aesthetically, we often like to have a heavy, grounded material at the base of a house and a light band around the top,” says Pfeiffer. “The metal has practical applications as well. You don’t have to paint it, and it’s more affordable.”
Another Barley and Pfeiffer signature is the extended roof eaves and deep overhangs–sized according to sun-angle calculations–to help shade and cool the interior during Texas’s long, hot summers. The overhang on the west side of the house (which happens to be the front) is so deep it has to be supported by an unusual Yshaped column. “We call it the goal post,” says Emily. “That took us a little longer to warm up to, but now it’s something we really like. The more you see it, the more you realize the house needs visual weight to support the big overhang.”
The architects also convinced the McKaskles to include a $30,000 rainwater collection system and a 40,000-gallon cistern buried just off the front corner of the house. Water collected off the metal roof meets all the McKaskles’ water needs. “We gave Emily and Greg phone numbers for clients who have had 100 percent rainwater,and that made them more comfortable doing it,” says Pfeiffer.
Happy at home
The family spends most of their time in the great room (living, dining, and kitchen area) that opens onto both porches. “Greg and I both grew up in houses with formal dining and living rooms that no one ever used, and we thought that was a ridiculous waste of space,” Emily says. Her office is upstairs in one of the bedrooms. The master suite is toward the back of the house where the lot slopes slightly downward, giving the impression that the room is perched in the live oak branches just outside a bank of windows. “It feels like the outside is right there,” says Greg who grew up on a farm and cherishes the outdoors.
After living in the house for nearly three years, the McKaskles haven’t found anything they’d change, including the look. “We love having a house that looks traditional but manages to be environmentally responsible,” Emily says.
What Makes This Home Green?
• Passive solar design with major windows and orientation to the southeast to capture prevailing breezes and aid in solar shading
• South-facing low-E windows
• Oversize roof overhangs that provide shade during summer and protect windows from the elements
• Rainwater collection system and enough storage (40,000 gallons) to supply water for year-round household needs
• Xeriscaping and low-water landscaping
• Recycled materials including finger-jointed lumber, cellulose insulation, and metal roofing made from post-industrial recycled steel
• Healthy building materials including nontoxic termite-treated wood, low-VOC interior paints, and formaldehyde-free insulation
• Locally available materials such as central Texas limestone
• Highly efficient appliances including front-loading washing machine and low-flow toilet
A Conversation with the Homeowners
What do you love most about this house?
Emily: It’s so comfortable to live in. One of the benefits of designing a house on your own and spending so much time in the architecture phase is that you’re so familiar with it that it feels like home the minute you walk in. I also really like how easy this house is to take care of–I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing housework.
Greg: We were able to merge the inside and outside a little. When you’re inside the house you can enjoy the outside. I think we pulled that off pretty nicely.
What’s your favorite room?
Emily: The great room is a big space, but it feels cozy, livable, and it’s multi-functional. It’s where we live, really. Greg’s computer is there, and he works in the evenings. I bring my laptop down to the great room after dinner so I can check email while we’re watching TV or something. It’s nice that we can both do our own thing but be together.
Greg: I really like the screened porch off the kitchen during the times when we use it, but for day-to-day life, we spend the majority of our time in the great room. We try to keep it really informal and unstructured.
What would you do differently?
Emily: If I absolutely had to change something, I might screen both the porches because of bugs. But we love so much about the house that it’s hard to think of what we’d change. I think that’s a testament to how well Peter, Paul, and Alan interpreted what we wanted. Also, having a good builder makes a ton of difference.
Greg: We’ve been in the house three years now, and we really like it. We still have some projects we’d like to do for ourselves like put in a new vent hood, but there isn’t much I’d change.
What advice can you give new home builders?
Emily: Getting a good architect and builder is really important, or if you’re doing it yourself, then do your research. Also, build and design a house that’s appropriate for your climate; ours is well designed for Texas.
Greg: Take your time, don’t rush it, and do your homework. You don’t want your dream house to become your nightmare house.