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Are these ‘modern tree houses’ the future of Austin infill?

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Eight sustainable units in South Austin

covered modern balcony looking out on trees and a nearby home by same architect
“Adult tree houses” in South Austin
Chase Daniel courtesy of Mark Odom Studio

While Austin leaders continue to debate (and debate) about how (or if) to achieve higher central-city density—Austin has some of the worst numbers in the country on that front—some designers and builders aren’t sleeping on creating ways to address the issue under current land-use regulations.

One of those designers is architect Mark Odom, whose Mark Odom Studio has garnered attention with such designs as those for Austin’s Bumble headquarters and Rosewood restaurant, among other local and national projects. Odom took on the challenge of residential density in a recently completed project in a South Austin neighborhood with an octet of homes he designed for a one-acre, oak-covered lot.

The recently completed project, located just off South Lamar Boulevard on Clawson Road, consists of four two-story duplexes, each built on a quarter of the subdivided lot, with a shared drive. Every duplex was designed around adjacent trees and desirable views, all sited to highlight the unique advantages of their lots.

“Existing trees were used not only as focal points for each building but also for various interior rooms, nestling each structure around the patterned landscape,” said Odom. “Room and window placement was then key so that each structure could take full advantage of its placement in the natural landscape and still maintain privacy from neighbors.”

Referred to informally as “modern treehouses,” the homes are unified by similar forms and materials, but all have qualities unique to the particular home. The site is laid out to promote social engagement among neighbors, and the buildings were planned with sustainability in mind; sound transmittance ratings, cross-ventilation, and minimizing impact on the existing trees were all encompassed in the planning.

The collection of contemporary homes, intertwined with their natural environment, might not achieve the even higher density that some urbanists prescribe for buildings that will occupy the spaces where vacant lots and teardowns now stand—but it certainly leans in that direction, a vast improvement over the large, single-family dwellings that sometimes seem like a default for Austin infill.

The strategy also maintains as many trees as possible—along with densification and addressing a serious transit crisis, an important component of combating climate change. And while the price might not be attainable by as many people as would be ideal—the units start at $599,000—the homes are an important example of how neighborhoods can welcome more buyers with quality, stylish, compact development.

“This type of development is critical to solving Austin’s ‘missing middle’ dilemma,” Odom explained, “as it strategically densifies an underutilized parcel of land while keeping the same scale of the neighborhood.”

Chase Daniel courtesy of Mark Odom Studio
Chase Daniel courtesy of Mark Odom Studio
Chase Daniel courtesy of Mark Odom Studio