Article No: 43

2006-05-01 09:11:50
Perfect 10 on Lake Travis
By: Cyndee DuHadaway

At the outset, the rugged limestone precipice soaring above the sparkling waters of Lake Travis are breathtakingly beautiful — and highly improbable as a homesite for any lifeform, with the possible exception of a cliff-dwelling eagle. With a staging area of a stingy three feet and a dramatic, 45-degree drop off, the craggy homesite Kerry and Carrie Spradley presented to Marley Porter, architect, builder and owner of Living Architecture & Construction Management Inc., seemed difficult at best.

"On a scale of one to 10 in difficulty, the site was definitely a 10," said Porter. "It's been a real challenge, but with the use of RASTRA building systems and good use of concrete in the retaining wall, we were able to create a beautiful home which works with the homesite and fits with the homeowners needs."

Porter and his colleagues at Living Architects were up for the challenge, and true to their design philosophy, took their cues from the land and homeowners when drawing up plans for the Spradley's lakeside sanctuary.

"When we begin a new project, we do an onsite design charrette," explained Porter, which invokes the tradition of the French picnic and involves bringing the minds of the homeowners together with those of the architects and designers in the environment that will become the home. "We sit at the site with the homeowners, and we have a little wine, with cheese and grapes, and we listen. The site has many voices — the topography, the solar considerations, the vistas — the trees speak especially loudly. Each sings a different song. You listen, and from those voices create a design that's appropriate for the homeowners and that particular site."

Porter said that the Spradley home was built from drafting table to final pour with the beauty of the surrounding environment in mind, from the location and position of the house on the lot to the structure and choices in building material. "There were only two, interesting little mesquite trees where the house was going to be built, and we managed to save both, and one even became a unique entry feature for the home," said Porter.

"In order to create enough home space on the steep site, we used concrete blocks to put in retaining walls," said Porter, adding that in some places, the retaining walls were 22 feet in height. The design form then took on a life of its own, symbiotic with the land and elements that would eventually surround it.

"The house itself claw-hammer-cantilevers out over the cliff, and a good concrete retaining wall was the only choice for building this type of structure," said Porter. "Within the house, there are two structural systems superimposed on each other. The first is a grid, and the second is a curve of glass sitting upon a concrete and metal b deck, which literally 'runs away' from the setting west sun."

The result is a 2,860-sq. ft. home with incredible multi-level decks, all of which are as much a part of the natural landscape as the gently lapping lakeshore below.

Because the house is constructed in a section of Central Texas that is as renowned for its nature preserves as it is for its rugged beauty, the RASTRA building system was a perfect choice from beginning to end, according to Porter.

RASTRA is an ICF system that utilizes 85 percent post-consumer polystyrene, which does not naturally recycle for more than a million years. The result is a versatile, durable building system that is ecologically sound, literally, from creation to completion.

"Polystyrene is everywhere and it doesn't disintegrate. Unfortunately, it sits in our landfills forever," said Porter. "Rather than fill up the landfills, we chop it up and make houses out of it."

Originally developed in Austria more than 30 years ago, RASTRA is catching on throughout the United States, where polystyrene is plentiful in everything from foam-packaged drive-through dinners to those "peanuts" found in computer packing.

By combining cement with the polystyrene, RASTRA provides strong, well-insulated walls that are 10 inches thick and are rated R-26, well above the standard R-19 of a well-insulated standard frame-built home, according to Porter.

And even in small workspaces, installation is a breeze. Once the easily maneuvered building materials are delivered to the homesite, rebar is installed in a grid pattern, and the cells are filled with concrete, making an incredibly strong building system.

In addition to keeping polystyrene out of the landfills and providing excellent energy efficiency, RASTRA also resists fire, high winds, pests and mold.

The system's resistance to tornadoes, pests and mold are particularly important in the Central Texas climate, which is hot and humid for nearly nine months of the year and prone to tornadic activity, particularly in the spring. While the area's typically balmy lake winds are refreshing to the soul, they may also encourage mold in traditional wood frame-built homes, whereas the RASTRA system resists mold colonization.

"It's also very sound resistant," added Porter. "By muffling noise pollution, homes and commercial buildings constructed with RASTRA allow clear, pure sounds within the structure, adding to the serenity and overall feeling of a personal inner sanctum.

"The sound protection definitely adds to the peaceful nature of the home," Porter said.

And RASTRA is as versatile as it is environmentally friendly.

"It's a wall system that also adapts to wood, steel and concrete structural systems, and can be finished in stucco, plaster or drywall mud," said Porter. "We're also beginning to do carvings directly into the RASTRA for stunning effects. You can actually sculpt and shape with RASTRA, which unleashes innumerable possibilities in design."

Some of the more celebrated structures built with RASTRA by Living Architecture are the elegantly lined One World Theater, a hot spot with happening Austin lovers of the arts, and the Y Restaurant in Oakhill, just west of Austin, voted one of the noted restaurants in the Austin American Statesman's 50 Best Restaurants.

Due to his vision of versatility with RASTRA, Porter is gaining a reputation as an architect/builder who can make the most out of an unforgiving lot.

"RASTRA is one of the most versatile building systems I've ever dealt with," said Porter, who is currently building a house on a site he rates as a 30 in difficulty. "With proper architectural design, you can build a beautiful structure on nearly any homesite."

And sitting high above the lake at sunset, listening to the rhythm of the gently rolling water beneath the cantilevered decks of the Spradley home, it's easy to believe Porter can take a site that is a difficult 10 and transform it into a living, functional work of art.

"The main reason our homes work so well is we have perfect clients," said Porter, "and that balance between beautiful land, good clients and the willingness to work with the site makes even difficult sites a perfect 10."