Whether it’s ironic or appropriate or both to be sequestered in our homes on this year’s Earth Day (say it with me now, “due to the novel coronavirus pandemic”), there’s nothing like a quarantine to lend some perspective to the whole affair. While there has been no small amount of focus on contemporary human dwelling places—recast as refuge, panic rooms, and work space, among other things—the pandemic has also caused us to view our natural environment in a new way. With only a tiny fraction of people limiting their interaction with the outside world for a tiny amount of time, we can already glimpse what our surroundings might have been like—and could be like again—with more thoughtful, less destructive human interaction.
Austin couple Christopher Brown and Agustina Rodriguez were exploring what Brown calls the “liminal spaces” between the natural world, human habitats, and human industry well before the pandemic. Along with a design team from Bercy Chen (Rodriguez was one of the team’s members) and lots of input from the surrounding Eastside neighborhood, the two designed and built their home on a forested lot in Govalle that was once part of a well-known local environmental battle—one the environmentalists and the neighborhood won. The one-of-a-kind house is not only built on a property once crossed by an oil pipeline—it’s built in part of the underground space the pipeline occupied.
The home, called Edgeland House, is featured in a new documentary series on Apple TV+, which debuted April 17. Called Home, the series was originally part of the 2020 SXSW Film Festival lineup and features innovative homes from around the world (including affordable houses in Tabasco, Mexico, that were 3D-printed by local company Icon, which featured a prototype at SXSW 2018).
Brown, a lawyer and science-fiction writer, started exploring the natural areas in Austin—particularly those near the Colorado River east of I-35, which he said “felt like a wild river right in the middle of town”—shortly after his arrival from the Midwest in 1998. The areas Brown took a particular liking to included land that for 35 years was the site of several bulk fuel storage tank facilities (known as the “tank farm”) and connected pipelines, owned by multiple petroleum companies. After much work on the part of Eastside activist group PODER and other city and neighborhood organizations, the presence of neighborhood contamination was brought to light, and the site was shut down in 1993.
In 2008, Brown rented a one-bedroom home next door to the eventual site of Edgeland House and started getting involved in neighborhood issues, working with activists such as Daniel Llanes and Susana Almanza (both of whom appear in the doc, demonstrating the kind of enthusiastic support for the project not easily won from the staunch Eastside advocates). After working with them on neighborhood affordability and preservation battles, Brown sought to extend those efforts into collaborations to promote conservation and environmental awareness along the river in East Austin.
After a protracted process in which Chevron, the pipeline owner, dug up and removed the stretch on what became the Edgeland House property (the site itself was found to be uncontaminated), Brown decided to put the house in the trench left by the excavation. “I wanted to preserve the memory of that past use,” he said in a recent call from the home, “including the artifacts left around, from Neolithic stone tools to trash from the ‘60s.”
The result is an innovative, 1,400-square-foot home that rises from about 13 feet below ground to a few feet above, in the jagged profile left by the pipeline excavation. Its crowning achievement, so to speak, is the roof. That’s where artist and designer Rodriguez comes in. Originally part of the design team working on the Edgeland House team (and eventually becoming partners with Brown), she brought the Lady Bird Wildflower Center to the table to create a green roof that doubles as a Blackland Prairie reclamation project. She also suggested that a planned concrete patio become a distinctively shaped, non-chlorinated pool—which, along with the roof, helps restore native wildlife to the land.
While Brown said they still “have to work at controlling invasive species when they pop up—the best way to maintain a landscape like this is to burn it, but you can’t burn your roof”—the home goes a long way toward restoring some version of the native ecology. In that, Brown said, he and Rodriguez join “many folks in East Austin doing similar things, putting yards back to wild, putting plants back to prairie.”
On the other hand, he said, the home acknowledges what has been there before: “This project is just one little facet of a long history of things people have been doing to try to maintain the rich ecological treasures we have here. It’s about how people find opportunities to work together as neighbors to find a better future.
“We live in this really weird, liminal space,” he added, “with light industry, single-family residential, and wild nature that coexist in a way that’s very uniquely and collectively [local]. Austin likes to harmonize those things.”