Frim designs downsized home for retirees in the Texas Hill Country

NEW BRAUNFELS — Nancy and David Beck were done with the big house for kids and their dogs and all the maintenance required to keep a house like that going.

“Our original (Guadalupe River) house was the entertaining house, usually with 20-plus kids from middle school through college and all their dogs in the swimming pool. It was bedlam over there,” Nancy said.

Now retired, David from Frost Bank and Nancy from H-E-B, the Becks wanted to stay near the river, but they wanted to downsize and create a low-maintenance home that was just for them. Designed by San Antonio-based Lake | Flato and nicknamed the River Bend House for its location on a wide turn in the river, their new home is just 1,800 square feet with one bedroom and 1 ½ baths.

“This house is our retreat, just for two, thus only one bedroom,” Nancy explained.

The couple has likened the home’s modern, geometric design to a pair of squared haystacks standing side by side. Clad in protective weathered steel with a patina of rust, it also blends into the surrounding landscape, just like they wanted. A separate guest house that doubles as David’s painting studio also shares the same haystack design and weathered steel exterior.

The home also has won some critical acclaim and was named a finalist in the Custom Residential Architecture Network Awards by the San Antonio chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

It’s as offbeat as its owners. “We are a tad bit nonconformist by nature,” Nancy said.

Construction began in late 2018 and the couple moved into the house in May 2021. “Construction took longer than we wanted,” said Steve Raike, a Lake | Flato partner and lead architect on the project. “The pandemic delayed it, and it takes a long time to build homes like this. Every one is unique.”

Raike’s marching orders included saving as many of the native trees on the property as possible.

“Dave absolutely loves trees. He grew up in West Texas, where there aren’t that many,” Raike said. “We took out a lot of cedar and underbrush, but I think we removed only one tree.”

The most obvious feature of the building is its exterior skin, made from a weathered steel alloy called corten. Raike explained that, shortly after being exposed to the elements, the steel develops a protective coating of rust, which prevents the steel underneath from continuing to rust.

It’s very low maintenance, and Raike said Lake | Flato has used the material successfully in harsh environments, such as the high desert around Santa Fe. “It’ll last forever,” he said.

While it’s an unusual material for San Antonio, the couple say they were all-in from the get-go.

“We loved the corten suggestion from the moment we saw it, unlike most of our more conservative friends,” said Nancy. “We finally stopped showing them the plans.”

The house consists of two wings, one for the kitchen and living room and one for the bedroom, connected by the foyer. The glass entryway provides a view through the house to the back of the lot as it falls away to the river below, giving visitors a sense of how the house extends over the edge of the steep hill.

Lake | Flato is known for homes that converse fluently with their natural landscape. The home’s large windows blur the line between the interior and exterior and open to allow the breeze to blow through in mild weather.

The living area is capped with an 18-foot-high, four-sided vaulted ceiling constructed of richly colored Douglas fir. A skylight at the peak allows plenty of natural light to enter.

“I love using Douglas fir,” Raike said. “It’s got a wonderful warmth and it’s very strong. When it’s cut properly, you get this lovely straight grain. And it’s sustainably harvested, too.”

Another unusual material used throughout the house is blackened steel, which provides a sharp, linear contrast to the warm fir. In the living room, it’s used as a sort of barn door that slides to the side to reveal the TV, and then slides closed to hide it and make the painting that hangs on it the focal point again.

“The steel is fun because, as it’s made it develops these uneven markings, almost like a patina,” Raike said. “So the process of making the steel is revealed. It’s not perfect, it’s distressed.”

Sliding glass doors in the far wall lead to a tree canopy-level balcony overlooking the sloping ground 20 feet below. In the distance one can hear the Guadalupe as it flows around the bend that gives the house its sobriquet.

The kitchen mixes both rustic and modern. A well-worn wooden island table purchased 25 years ago at a French flea market shares space with Douglas fir-faced cabinets, plaster walls and stainless steel countertops.

In the opposite wing, the owner’s suite has the same vaulted ceiling and trapezoid skylight as the living room, but it’s finished with white plaster. And in place of Douglas fir, the flooring and cabinets are made from rich walnut.

“We did that so each building would have its own unique character,” Raike said. “But we still used the same blackened steel you see elsewhere in the house.”

A sleek and sophisticated barn door leads into the bathroom where a complex wood privacy screen hides from view the sunken bathtub. Made from plaster to look like concrete, the tub commands a view of the wooded side lot beyond.

“We thought the Lake | Flato tiny house would be fun and fit into the landscape for us to enjoy in our golden years,” Nancy said. “They are so unbelievably creative. We turned them loose.”

[email protected] | Twitter: @RichardMarini

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