knew this project was going to be different and that we could learn from each other,” architect Tobin Smith recalls about his early conversations with a client who happened to be a seasoned real estate developer with a love of architecture. Bonded by a mutual passion for contemporary design, they wanted to bring something current to the established San Antonio, Texas, neighborhood where the owner and his wife decided to build near their longtime family home. “He had studied the property for a few years,” Smith says. “And from the beginning, he had a sense of how the rooms would relate to one another.” The client–who even created a massing model of the new residence he envisioned–adds, “Tobin was a great collaborator who welcomed my thoughts but wasn’t afraid to challenge me.”
With landscape designer Wally Baker also onboard, their first major decision was to utilize the foundation of the home that originally stood on the lot, helping to minimize damage to the surrounding oak trees that shade the property. The owners also wanted the master bedroom to be located on the ground level with the other main living spaces. Between repurposing the footprint and negotiating the site’s 20-degree incline, however, this proved no easy task. The solution, the owner explains, was to design the home “like an asymmetrical horseshoe,” in essence wrapping the main living areas around a central pool, with the master bedroom cantilevering over the slope of the hill. “The width of the lot and the desire for all spaces except two guest rooms to be situated on one level led to the rear-extending volumes on both sides of the central living space,” explains Smith, who worked with project team member Kenny Brown.
Materials were also a primary consideration throughout the decision-making process. “It was important to have no siding, painting, resealing, rotting or fading,” says Smith, who selected limestone, steel, stucco and oak with longevity in mind. Faced with “both heat and shade while trying to control temperatures,” he says, they utilized thermally broken aluminum-frame windows to establish an indoor-outdoor connection despite a hot climate effecting ample time spent inside. And in the many cases where window glazing abuts a perpendicular wall plane, Smith ensured the material patterns connect on both sides of the glass: Textured limestone outside transitions to a smoother finish in the living room, for instance, and elsewhere exterior metal panels blend seamlessly into the wood-paneled indoor walls. “Inside, everything becomes more refined,” he explains.
The warmth of the materials also helped create a sense of harmony with the setting and the surrounding homes. “I’d be happy living in a concrete, steel and glass house,” the husband jokes, “but we didn’t want to offend our neighbors with a much more contemporary home than they were accustomed to seeing.” Nor did the wife want a cold-feeling abode. “She wanted warmth and comfortably scaled rooms,” the architect says, “so we talked a lot about atmosphere, scale, light and materiality.” With her wishes in mind, Smith and the husband worked to devise intimate spaces that still feel generous. “A monstrous space wouldn’t have accommodated the experiential qualities we wanted,” the architect notes. To that end, while the home has an open plan, it also boasts multiple distinct entertaining spaces that flow into each other, plus floating walls and receding areas that add a sense of mystery and reveal.
With a few furnishings already in place, the clients sought designer Hillary Conrey’s help to see their home’s interiors to the finish line. “It was just about making things soft for her and nice for him while honoring the architecture,” Conrey explains. Although she and her team incorporated comfortable pieces with a strong design presence, care was taken not to distract from other elements, such as the custom rugs and the owners’ artworks. Their collection is a combination of existing pieces and new works commissioned specifically for this project, including an installation in the living room by Houston-based artist Paul Fleming. “We’ve been art lovers since we met and collected since purchasing our first home in 1984,” the husband says. “I’d rather live with blank walls than with art that doesn’t speak to me.”
It’s this depth of feeling that built the house. “We approached the residence as if it were a heritage project by using fine, durable materials that will stand the test of time and designing it to remain functional for the owners through the decades,” Smith says. And while the husband may wax poetic about the process and its result, he and his wife are now simply happy homeowners. “It’s the feeling of being on vacation every day,” he says about living in the residence. “It makes for great fun when entertaining family and friends.”
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