Went to the loo in Austin

I had a family reunion in Austin this past weekend. And you know how reunions go, you are so involved with enjoying the get together you push other things to the back of your mind. Like visiting the loo.

I, however, had a loo – front and center in my mind.

Lady Bird Loo, Austin Texas, Mell Lawrence Architects, Austin Buildings need to work amazingly well. Ours do. They reflect a deep sense of place and life pattern. Mell Lawrence Architects, Austin

It was late morning on a hot and humid July day, typical for Austin. The Colorado River looked serene in its placid state of pale green and blue water. A cooling breeze seemed to drop the temperature to bearable as we walked the gravel trail along its bank.  

Two awkward looking rusted steel structures came into view. I instantly recognized them from their published photos.  They looked more shadow than structure as the tall steel sheets rose directly from the ground.

When you are on an architectural pilgrimage, no matter how humble, attention is moreso. I walked around the structures, peeking into the narrow gap between the steel panels and the concrete end wall, noting the carefully detailed clips that held the steel panels to the frame. The panels were already covered in rust, the intended end game of Corten steel that allows the natural salt and humidity to corrode its surface to a point of patina before further corrosion is inherently stopped. This rust felt almost dangerous as I carefully inspected the corrosion flakes.

I ran my hand along the board formed concrete end walls, feeling the wood grain and the concrete bits that leaked through, forming thin rough rows across the wall.  

As I continued to walk around the buildings, sensing the tall and folding walls, I eventually realized that they were locked for maintenance. Actually, that had not in the least diminished my experience. The buildings were quite available as simple structures along a trail. Belonging to the site regardless of their use. Good design is like that.

Design begins with a dream

Some of you might have noticed, although shifts in society seem to happen so slow they are hard to notice, that housing has become not only a low to no income issue, it has hit the middle income. It is actually identified as a crisis in most major cities in the US. The shameful housing crash of 2008 should have guided us to a course correction in housing and not just in lending. But it didn’t, not really. Builders continue to churn out cheap mass housing, cities continue to allow speculation on land that drives up premium real estate in amenity-rich neighborhoods, and houses remain big as do mortgages. The lenders and the builders make money, the people go into debt and begin to dream about being free from all the stuff and the mortgage they had thought necessary for happiness. Stuff and a big mortgage are necessary for the lenders’ and builders’ happiness. Meanwhile the people dream about doing work that is satisfying not just providing a paycheck, they dream about freedom to travel and learn and experience and live the life they choose. The dream shows up on blogs and travel diaries and YouTube videos. And the dream has shown up in tiny houses and ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Unit – second small houses on a single family lot). Places where the owner is in charge to make the sort of house they want to live in and to support the life they want to be in.

I have been dreaming about small houses. I am one of those hundreds of thousands who has lived in a city I love for decades while the real estate industry crept in with its speculative for-profit goals, eroding so much of the original fabric and shooting up land value and property taxes. The uber-rich are buying up all the good stuff, but I don’t want to sell my good stuff and fade quietly into the setting sun. I want to fan the dream of a vibrant community and small houses for intentional simple living. I want what the Boomers want, I want what the Millennials want, I want what the wealthy think they have and what those with little know they have. I want to live my one wild and precious life with intention, every day not just on weekends or while on holiday. I want to cast off all the things that society (read capitalism) has deemed necessary for a good life. No, I will not refinance in order to get that new car; or pull out a credit card for the must-have new shoes. Sorry merchants, you will have to make your fortunes on some other back. I will continue to reject cheap goods over human or environmental rights to wellbeing. It is time the housing industry took a tumble toward the people. I have been dreaming about small houses and everything they foretell.

My adventure to realize this dream begins as all good design does, by unearthing what exists. By listening. Beside my house in one of Boulder’s most sought after neighborhoods (I was here before it was deemed so and when the houses were mostly 800 square feet) stands what used to be a two-car garage. In the 1980’s I converted the unused garage into my architecture studio.

26 years later, the world has changed and that 480 square feet should have a higher purpose. It is heading toward becoming a small house. And it will get there by very unconventional means… I will not demolish nor will I build as big as I am allowed. I will reuse and reconfigure to create a remarkable small house that will go forth and tip housing toward people and the world we want to inhabit.

I emptied the studio except for a few vital pieces. There are the lamps I made from the Mylar I had drafted projects onto; there is the tufted faux leather minimalist sofa acquired on Craigslist for $60; and there is the skinny oak table eighteen feet long reclaimed when CU’s art school moved and they were tipping all the furniture into the dumpster. These pieces, all reclaimed from a former life, sit confidently in the space, knowing that in my studio things do not get thrown away. Good design is like that.

I lay on the cool concrete floor and dream, empty feels so very very good.


Glenn Murcutt: Australian Architect extraordinaire

There is something truly inspiring about well-made buildings that belong in their place on the planet; whose little details build up to something far, far grander than merely sensible solutions to enclosure. Glenn Murcutt is a master whose work can make you want to just sit down and cry it is so sublimely beautiful. Good design is like that.

The triple layer wall, a neat logic to deal with the specific climatic conditions of eastern Australia:

-operable glass through which to sail the breezes

-insect screens to stop the little buggers

-aluminum venetian blinds that direct solar gain, views, and privacy


The walls are exemplary of place-based detailing but then, there is the soaring roof overhang feathering into the vastness of the site and there is the ground dropping away below to keep you from harm’s way. The design connects powerfully to its landscape: to its specific site, to the climate, to the memory of the indigenous shelters and it all tingles through you, anchoring you squarely in the Australian landscape.

Its beauty is undeniable for it is sourced in what Julene Bair astutely observed in Ogallala Road: “Our sense of beauty is a survival instinct telling us that a place can sustain us.” The work puts an entirely new spin on sustainable design, oh wait – good design is not about a spin. It is the result of deep observation, intentional experience, and profound connection. You need to have skin in the game, only then do you get to make something that sends shivers up your spine.

You won’t find a Glenn Murcutt web site, facebook or any such online presence. You won’t find him using CAD of any sort. What you do find is an incredible human being pressing his innate sensibilities, talent, and wisdom into making deceptively simple buildings that humbly do their job: they sustain their place in the world and the people who inhabit them. That is Architecture at its base core root. Thank you Glenn.

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