HGTV Smart Home 2015: Building Challenges
Urban infill is cropping up in many cities where underused or abandoned properties are being transformed into residential or commercial sites to help boost local economies and bring more people and industries back to urban areas. In Austin, like in many cities, strict urban building ordinances place limitations on what can be built and how big.
For the HGTV Smart Home 2015, zoning laws stipulated that the house could only be 40 percent of the lot size, so a 2,300 square foot house was the most that could be built. To accommodate the house, every inch of space had to be strategically planned out.
With no basement, the house was built on a concrete raft slab so the cooling and heating systems had to be housed in closets within the structure.
In keeping with the smart features, standard building practices were augmented by using spray foam insulation for the ceilings and blown in insulation in the walls to create a tight building envelope that would prevent hot air from entering the house and cool air from leaking out. The bulkier insulation also helped to deaden sound coming from the media loft on the second floor of the house.
Lead architect, Don Harris, AIA, Don Harris Architect, had to abide by the strict building ordinances put in place by the city of Austin as he was designing the home. “There were five or six protected mature trees to build around,” says Harris. Saving a large pecan tree that dominates the front yard had to be considered. “If a tree is over 18 inches around, you need a permit to cut it down,” he says. If the large trees on the property were cut down, the city requires that twice as many trees as were cut down would have to be planted on the lot. “In general, trees don’t get too big around here unless they are irrigated,” he says.
To save the pecan tree, the city brought in a hydra extractor that would vacuum up the soil around the roots so that no digging would be needed to install the underground utility lines. “Digging would have cut the roots and damaged the tree,” says house planner Jack Thomasson.
Once the house was built, the landscape design firm, Robert Leeper Landscapes, came on board to design and install the landscape. “We were concerned about being kind and respectful to the environment,” says Robert Leeper, ASLA, principal of the firm. “We had to be aware of the amount of water we would use to irrigate because we have a serious drought issue here in central Texas,” he explains.
While many of the existing residential landscapes in the area have, “wall-to-wall lawns,” says Leeper, comprised of thirsty St. Augustine grass, his goal was to reduce the size of the lawn and in some areas, eliminate it.
To that end, Leeper planted an “area-rug” drought tolerant zoysia grass lawn in front of the house under the pecan tree. Here, the grass would be shaded from the sun and require less water to keep alive.
Limestone gravel, quarried from nearby sources, would fill in much of the rest of the yard acting as walkways from one part of the property to the other and allowing any rainfall to percolate down into the soil.
To avoid the arid look of a zero-scape design more suited to Arizona or New Mexico, Leeper chose plants from Austin’s Green Grow list that would provide a lush, green atmosphere to the yard and he installed a smart drip watering system to keep them thriving. The cherry laurels that ring the perimeter, Japanese boxwoods that define the front yard and the large scale Mexican sycamores that line the driveway all have micro-bubblers at their roots connected to a smart watering system that can be controlled by a smart phone or tablet. The system measures the amount of water needed for the plants.
“You can water once a week and it will keep the plants alive,” says Leeper. For additional watering, a 200-gallon cistern collects rainwater from the roof of the house and stores it to be used to water plants not connected to the irrigation system.
Running the utilities to the house from the street posed another problem. City building codes do not allow private utility lines to cross over lot lines. Since the house was built on a flag lot, the solution was to run the utilities underground in the driveway from the street to the house.
Another factor in building the home was the timing of the build from start to finish. It would need to be completed in a shorter amount of time than a normal new home build, says Thomasson. By using established builder/developer Scott Turner, owner of Riverside Homes, the manpower and suppliers were ready to complete the build. “Austin is a hot real estate market now,” says Turner. “Getting the trades out here on a timely basis kept the schedule on time."