Twin Peaks Explained


Twin Peaks Project – Two Single Family Urban/Suburban Residences

There seems to be a few questions about Twin Peaks on Apartment Therapy. I guess we can answer them here… Yes, the central piece seems to float off the walls. It’s structure is attached to the wall by brackets. Since the houses are not big, it allows for the eye to travel in between and it creates a much “lighter” feeling.

The finish on the center folding piece is a type of catalyzed polyurethane, it’s like a lacquer, though it is NOT technically a lacquer.

Here’re the pics we have and a wonderful article about the house by Kris Krager, a colleague, who wrote the article for an issue of Texas Architect, when the project won a State Award (TSA) I would link to the article but it’s not online anymore!

Urban/Suburban Hybrid by Chris Krager, Assoc. AIA

PROJECT: Twin Peaks, Austin ARCHITECT: M.J. Neal Architects PROJECT TEAM: M.J. Neal, AIA; Thomas Bercy; Powei Chen; Joseph Winkler; Justin Rumpeltes; Viviane Vives CONSULTANT: Jerry Garcia (Structures) PHOTOGRAPHERS: Viviane Vives; M.J. Neal

Two Austin townhouses defy increasing density and create space on a constrained suburban site.

Like many other American cities, Austin has seen a significant increase in central city development in the past five years. The realization that Austin cannot sustain the continued stretching of its urban infrastructure has led to such initiatives as Smart Growth and Traditional Neighborhood Development. These initiatives have led to relatively low-risk residential development guided primarily by builders erecting traditional housing or “soft-loft” projects priced at the top end of the market.

However, instead of relying solely on the high-end of the economic spectrum, cities such as Austin have the opportunity to deal with – economically, architecturally, and socially – the urban phenomenon of centripetal growth with innovative residential typologies. Moreover, placing suburban houses in quasi-urban environments is essentially irresponsible and results in a lost opportunity for more creative solutions.

With his Twin Peaks project, M.J. Neal, AIA, set out to challenge the unimaginative builder model with a “urban/suburban hybrid.” The problems he faced are neither unique to Austin nor without historical precedent (think of Arabian courtyard houses and urban townhouses): How to design stand-alone single-family residences with the amenities of the suburban home within neighborhoods of increased density, and how to provide residents a comfortable level of isolation on a constrained site while allowing controlled engagement with the public realm?

To successfully address these issues, a building must become an exercise in spatial economy. This Neal accomplished in Twin Peaks with choreographed movement around articulated service masses. The two buildings are essentially vertical tubes with which Neal has taken an additive/subtractive approach. Additive is service function (the central stair/storage element) and subtractive are the moments of respite (screened porches and decks). Surprisingly, while these are not large buildings (1,600 sf of air-conditioned space and 1,000 sf of exterior space), they accommodate much more than one would expect.

Neal assembled this new typology with innovative technologies – SIPS panels, steel/mdf cabinets, catalyzed polyurethane finishes, high-velocity HVAC system, and boat-building plywood, to name a few – and off-the-shelf materials that he customized to varying degrees. As a prototype the buildings were a working experiment, with all of the foibles one would expect with such a process. The buildings are at once complex and elegantly simple. (As anyone who has attempted to build “simply” is aware: simple must be careful, and is most often considerably more expensive.) Many times what Neal anticipated as being matter-of-fact ended up costing more money and taking more time. To his credit, Neal executed those tasks as originally planned rather than opting to cut corners.

When viewed on an initial approach, the exterior of Twin Peaks cuts a distinctive and striking profile in its southside Austin context. The houses, clad in copper and Hardiplank, are handsomely proportioned and nestle comfortably in the site’s mature trees. Each level has an adjoining exterior space which is as generous as the interior and provides a variety of perspectives–to the neighborhood, back to the building, and finally, through the trees. Garages located off the alley have studio apartments above, which provide the density this suburban typology requires.

The structures were intended to create sculptural spaces and are definitely experienced as such. The placement of fenestration emphasizes this through the figural nature of the windows and the consideration of light. Upon entering, one is immediately aware of the nested nature of the space and the layered procession that is about to unfold. The stairwell/furniture element dominates and vertically perforates the space. As a centerpiece it is striking. The material/structural logic of the building reveals itself often, partially a result of economics and partially as an architectural device through instances such as the exposed two-story SIPS panels in the living room and the delicate steel and perforated metal stair.

These are markedly masculine buildings with spare and minimal surfaces. Light is the arbiter and animator of the space, dynamically re-rendering concrete, steel, and lacquer over the course of the day. The material palette is bold and specified with a conscious eye toward juxtaposition: for example, the exposed OSB, a material rarely visible in finished buildings, set adjacent to the hyper-finished cabinet reinforces the presence of the central mass. The color and finish of this surface, which continues upward to form the third-level floor, lends a slightly whimsical quality to the space and gives it a pied-a-terre/bachelor pad ambience. Like the perforated metal that forms the stair, OSB is not the material experience the average person expects and I suspect this to be purposeful on Neal’s part. A necessary material uniformity is established with the trim and secondary cabinets through the use of a single paint color.

The fact that this endeavor occurred speculatively lends additional merit to Neal’s vision. At a critical moment in American urban development the initiative to act is unfortunately lacking in our discipline. Innovation and quality cannot be expected from builders responding to market forces. The Twin Peaks project is bold and assertive, and while its material and language may be challenging, it should be applauded as much for the model it suggests as its energy and dynamism.

–Chris Krager, Assoc. AIA, is a principal of KRDB in Austin.


masonry units: Featherlite; architectural metal work: Crippen Sheet Metal; copper siding: Crippen Sheet Metal; copper screen: Howard Wire Cloth; aluminum: Alcoa; structural insulated panels: Creative Panel Solutions; siding: James Hardie Building Products; metal doors and frames: Alenco, Metal Craft; metal windows: Alenco; tile: Daltile; paints: ICI Dulux, Pittsburgh, Sherwin-Williams


2003 Design Award Winners – TSA Honor Awards

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