Bercy Chen Studio has completed a private residence in Austin, Texas. Situated on a former brownfield site, the land was left in tatters after a Chevron pipeline clean-up. The practice’s long-standing fascination with Native American architecture led to the adoption of the pit-house as a design model for Edgeland House. “It has always seemed peculiar to us,” explains Calvin Chen, “that the accumulated wisdom in vernacular architecture is largely ignored. Instead, fields of giant McMansions spring up everywhere.”
Discussions with the client revealed a need for privacy, and shared ecological and aesthetic concerns meant the idea of the pit-house resolved many needs at the same time. From the street it looks as if the house, which is partially sunk into the ground, is a simple green mound. The house is split into two sections – one for sleeping, the other for living and entertaining. The lack of a hallway was intended to encourage more time spent outside, echoing the client’s desire for a courtyard house.
The building is constructed from a structural steel frame, fitted with double-glazed tinted low-E glass and topped by a green roof. Its angular juttings directly follow the lay of the land. “The sloped site is in a light industrial zone bordering a riverfront greenbelt in the east side of Austin used mostly by transients,” Chen says. “We discovered, along with the client, many ingenious makeshift tent structures nearby, which might have influenced us subconsciously.” The building’s concrete retaining walls, half-buried underground, are exposed and also serve as interior walls. Exposed concrete is repeated for the floors and the ceiling panels are painted sheetrock.
Edgeland House is the result of aesthetic, ecological and practical harmony between architect and client. Driven by larger concerns for land stewardship in the face of wasteful use of industrial land and loss of habitat for wildlife, it is heartening to see Bercy Chen brave the challenges of building on a brownfield site given that good greenfield sites remain in abundance. As Chen explains: “In the US, there is such abundance of space that often sites grown through suburbanisation and hundreds and thousands of acres of land are abandoned because it is cheaper and politically expedient to develop greenfields instead of brownfields.”
The project also shows that you don’t have to build on a wildlife reserve to get close to nature, and that well-maintained brownfield sites can offer just as rich an experience. “We wanted the house to enhance one’s experience of nature. Some [of these aids] were deliberate designs, and some were just happy accidents,” Chen says. “We were interested in a more intimate way of living, where one becomes more aware of nature.”