The Long And Winding Road
A Perilous Hill Country Lane Leads To A Peaceful Texas Retreat.
Getting to Carl and Helen Lasner's house in the Texas hill country takes some perseverance. A twisting, two-mile-long route guides you right through a creek not once but three times, and if there's been a storm recently you'd better be prepared to turn around and go home. “Road Impassable During High Water” reads a roadside sign, rather ominously.
Once you arrive at the long, low, stone-and-wood structure, though, the entire journey seems worth the effort. The team behind the home's design and construction—local contractor Michael Vernor, architects Bob Shemwell, Rick Archer, and Steve Kline of the San Antonio firm Overland Partners, and the Lasners—can particularly appreciate this situation. It mirrors uncannily the project's arduous, two-year building process and eventual successful completion. “The house was a challenge for everyone involved,” admits Kline, the project manager. “There was a lot of drama, but it kept on moving. There was never a point where construction just stopped.”
The first hurdle to clear was the decision about where and how to site the house. Carl Lasner spent a year and a half walking his 135-acre site in the town of Wimberley, halfway between San Antonio and Austin. He decided that the best place to build would be on a natural clearing in the middle of the property rather than a tempting site down by the creek. “For me the creek needs to be a destination, not something we're looking at all the time,” he says. Overland Partners agreed, and after much maneuvering managed to eke out a one-room-deep floor plan wedged in among the existing oak and elm trees surrounding the clearing.
Not only does the 5,000-square-foot plan's narrow width—about 25 to 28 feet across in most places—ensure a snug fit between the trees, it also serves to enhance the home's connection to the outdoors. Nearly every room contains multiple openings to the outside. Interspersed outdoor rooms such as the pool and patio, a covered dining pavilion, and a motor court break up the home's massing and let extra light inside. And by stretching the house out along its site like a piece of taffy, the architects offered an impressive level of privacy for each part of the household. A guest room and sleeping porch are separated from the main house by a breezeway, the master bedroom occupies a dogleg at the far western edge of the floor plan, and a second-floor tower holds bedrooms for Carl Lasner's two teenage children.
The home's material selections amped up the degree of difficulty. Lasner happens to own a good-sized hardwood lumber distribution company, which gave him access to a wealth of high-end woods like pecan and cypress. For the building's stone walls he chose a sandstone from Abilene, Texas, rather than the more typical local limestone. The logistics of trucking in 1,200 tons of stone and having lumber milled from scratch were new to contractor Vernor, whose experience lay mostly in building homes from customized stock plans. So was the process of making custom pecan window frames, which were stained and sealed to prevent rain damage. “This was a complicated house,” he says. “I wasn't mentally prepared for it.” The labor-intensive decision making and constant back-and-forth among builder, client, and architect that characterize an ultra-custom project like this one took him by surprise. So did the tiny margin for error. “The materials were very expensive,” he says. “We had to be so careful.”
As hard as they were to deal with, there's no doubt that the blend of materials works beautifully. The sandstone anchors the house to its site, and the pecan floors, cabinetry, and window frames and cypress ceilings warm up the stone. At night, the woods give the home a honey-toned glow, with lights reflecting off their glossy beams. Using stone for some interior walls as well as for the exterior lends a sense of continuity to the entire project. “We really wanted that materiality of stone going from outside to inside,” says architect Kline.
But the pleasure of basking in a job well done wasn't yet available to Vernor when he developed a debilitating headache. It happened on the site, about 85 percent of the way through the project. The headache turned out to be a symptom of a life-threatening brain aneurysm. He underwent successful emergency surgery, and spent three and a half weeks recovering. While he attributes the aneurysm to a number of factors, he doesn't deny that work-related stress may have contributed to the high blood pressure which led to his illness. “The aneurysm had been coming for a long time, but this house pushed me to the limit,” he says.
During the time he was out of commission, project superintendent Keith Mulder visited him every morning and evening with progress updates. Veteran trim carpenters J.P. Schmidt and Jason Carroll also stepped in to help manage things. The pair “saved the day,” according to Lasner, who took over parts of the contracting and visited the site three times a week from his then-home in Austin. This combination of contractors oversaw the painting and finishing process, as well as some final trim and stone work. Once he was healthy again, Vernor returned for the very end of the job and took care of final touches like installing appliances and doorknobs.
As much stress as the house caused, it now produces the exact reverse. “The biggest compliment we received about it was when Carl told us that he and Helen used to seek out serene, relaxing vacation places,” recalls Kline. “He said that now they live in a place like that.” For his part, Vernor has no regrets. “I'm glad I did the house,” he says. “It broadened my spectrum of building knowledge.” The Lasners love to sip their morning coffee on the back porch and watch the incredible diversity of birds and other wildlife that roam their land, or maybe take a stroll down to a nearby ravine with their dogs. You get the feeling that when the creek rises too high for them to leave, they don't mind a bit.