A High-Performance Texas House That Stays Cool in the Heat

Wednesday, Sep 10 2014
Posted by:
Lydia W. Lee

Austin, Texas, is a cultural hotbed, as seen through its South by Southwest conference, barbecue options and its liberal politics. It is also literally hot, occasionally exceeding 110 degrees during the scorching summers. To help a client in the West Lake Hills neighborhood cool off, architect Tim Brown designed a graceful farmhouse compound with plenty of porches on a 1-acre lot.

“The farmhouse style is very Texas vernacular,” said Brown. “It hearkens back to a simpler time and speaks of home to people — it’s not a sterile, stark modern creation. It’s also a form that lends itself to natural cooling.”

Brown, who used to work for green guru Peter Pfeiffer before going out on his own in 2009, starts out designing with passive cooling in mind. He oriented the house with its short ends on the East and West to minimize the amount of hot afternoon sun hitting the house.

He created a floor plan that breaks up the building mass into a compound of smaller spaces, while using disproportionally large overhangs to shade the interiors. “It’s the reverse of building in a cold climate, where you want to insulate everything and maximize the R-value,” said Brown.

For active cooling, he also made strategic choices. Instead of insulating the attic floor and leaving the HVAC system to bake in hot weather, he insulated the roof with spray foam, which also works as a vapor barrier. Mitsubishi ductless mini-split systems provide quiet, efficient cooling to different zones of the house. On the ground floor, the registers are located 10 ft. up on the walls, so that the cold air sinks and pushes the hot air down to the return vents near the floor.

Lydia W. Lee is an architecture and design writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Project Details:

Project: Las Brisas Farmhouse

Location: Westlake Hills, Texas

Size: 2,700 sq. ft.

Architect: Tim Brown Architecture, Austin, Texas

General Contractor: Michael Alwan, Redbud Custom Homes

Consultants: Steinman Leuvano Structures and DRM Design Group

Photographer: Casey Fry, C.L. Fry Photo


The idea of a white farmhouse came in part from the client, who liked the design of Solage Calistoga, a rustically styled resort in California’s Wine Country. The house is clad in James Hardie fiber cement board and the windows are Marvin Integrity, which offer the performance of wood, but are substantially less expensive. The front door is custom-made with steel mullions and glass panes.  The standing-seam metal roof works well with the rural vernacular.



The backsplash in the kitchen is made of Carrara marble tiles; the exposed-bulb pendant lighting is from Restoration Hardware. The cabinetry is custom. The inside of the kitchen island, as well as the TV nook on the facing wall, are both lined with reclaimed barn wood.


Along the ridge of the great room, a roof monitor with operable clerestory windows lets in light from above. The cold-air register is that narrow slot running across the wall — a clever engineering feat by the builder. The flooring is white oak. The exterior and main interior spaces are both painted white. “Instead of using color to distinguish different areas, we used textured materials such as shiplap siding,” said Brown.


The stairwell features the interesting angles that occur when rooflines intersect. To keep the height of the house down, but still have the architectural interest of a vaulted ceiling, Brown lowered the wall plate here to 6 ft., rather than go with the typical 8 ft. There’s still enough headroom, thanks to the slope of the roof.


The wide landing at the top of the stairs was thoughtfully designed as a play area for the kids.


The backsplash and shower are lined in oversized subway tile from Daltile. The fixtures are Hansgrohe; the mirrors and pendant lighting are from Restoration Hardware; the cabinetry is custom. The countertops are made of Carrara marble, as is the window frame and shower sill. The shower floor is covered in marble hex tile and features a linear drain.


Gravel from the Chattahoochee River forms a minimalist, low-maintenance front yard/driveway. Between the main house and the garage, a covered walkway in walnut leads directly to the pool.


The house has three separate porches, including a screened porch off the dining area. “Every house in Texas should have a screened porch,” said Brown. The main porch is accessed through 12 ft. of Marvin sliding glass doors. It was left unscreened, since the clients have plans for a pool next to it. Above, the roof overhang showcases its structure of purlins and rafters.


First floor plan


Second floor plan


Product Spec Sheet

Siding: James Hardie, fiber cement [jameshardie.com]

Roofing: Paint Grip, standing seam metal

Doors: Marvin, aluminum clad [marvin.com]

Door hardware: Marvin [marvin.com]

Glazing: Southern Low E

Flooring: white oak (first floor) and wool carpet (second floor)

Kitchen cabinetry: custom

Kitchen appliances: Wolf Range [subzero-wolf.com] and Liebherr USA [liebherr.us]

Kitchen countertops: Carrara marble

Kitchen fixtures: Restoration Hardware [restorationhardware.com]

Bath fixtures: Hansgrohe USA [hansgrohe-usa.com]

Bath flooring: white oak

HVAC: Mitsubishi mini-splits [mehvac.com]

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