A downtown Austin, Texas, eco-remodel brings storybook delight and charm into real-life scale.
Photos by Paul Bardagjy
With all the advances in green building technology, it might come as a surprise to hear about a house renovation project done the old-fashioned way: through resourcefulness and conservation. But architect-designer James Talbot and artist Kay Pils are full of surprises. And so is their two-bedroom home in downtown Austin, Texas, known as Casa Neverlandia—a colorful, undulating wonderland outfitted with solar panels, rainwater collection, fire poles, an elevated footbridge, talk tubes, nooks, and hideaways that is as much a nod to Dr. Seuss and Peter Pan as it is to Buckminster Fuller and Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí.
These days the house looks nothing like it did in 1979, when Talbot bought the single-story 1917 bungalow for the very reasonable price of $13,000 (reasonable because, well, it’s a good price for a house, but also because two-bedroom homes in the sought-after Bouldin Creek neighborhood now sell for close to $200,000). Transformed from its humble origins, the three-story limestone and brick Austrian chalet captures some of the flair of architectural styles of Goa, India, and Oaxaca, Mexico, by way of Las Vegas (circa 1963). “I grew up in the military, which meant I grew up around the world,” says Talbot, an architect and artist who builds children’s playscapes. “A lot of what you see here was inspired from the various places I’ve lived like Morocco, Turkey, London, and Venezuela.”
After he bought the house, Talbot added a Rumford-style fireplace and a sunken lounge to the main living area. But the big renovation didn’t take off until Kay, an artist and interior designer, moved in during 1996. Kay had homesteaded for sixteen years on twenty-two acres in the Texas Hill Country in a five-sided cabin she built herself for $1,000, so she was no stranger to a challenging project — or the uprooting that comes with a major house renovation. The couple topped the first story with a giant A-frame and sectioned it off into the second and third floors. Then they added a backyard artist’s studio, a four-story lookout tower, and many elaborate balconies and playthings.
Both during and after construction, Talbot and Kay paid careful attention to how much they would effect the natural environment. Many of the materials they used were salvaged from brick- and steelyards, bought from reuse stores, or simply donated from friends and family. In addition to the sixteen solar panels attached to the lookout tower, Talbot and Kay added a rainwater collection system on the studio and funneled graywater from the washing machine and bath to planting islands out back.
The greenest aspect of the house is not the salvaged materials or the solar panels, it’s Talbot and Kay themselves. Avid conservationists and self-described “card-carrying hippies,” the couple uses only about 200 to 300 kilowatt hours of electricity a month with the help of their solar panels (which provide around 150 kilowatt hours a month)—less than a third of what a house of the same size (2,600 square feet) would normally use. They accomplish this by making energy-conscious decisions such as inviting in breezes and natural light through skylights, windows and open doors. “We sort of chase each other around turning lights off after one another, and we use a lot of candles,” says Talbot.
Most astonishing, though, is that the house has no central heating or air conditioning, a downright courageous feat considering that July and August temperatures in Texas regularly hover between 95 and 105 degrees and the winter mercury drops below freezing at least two weeks of the year. “We’re probably not at our best in August or January,” admits Talbot. “The way we live is a little old fashioned, but in the past—before central air and heating—everyone made do by adjusting their lifestyle and their clothing.”
In summer, if it’s too hot to sleep inside, Talbot sets up a bed and a mosquito net on the lookout tower and sleeps there. (Full disclosure: If it’s really, really hot, Kay retreats to a small seven-by-eleven-foot room off the second floor and plugs in the sole window-unit air conditioner.) In winter, they bundle up in warm clothes and rely on gas space heaters and the Rumford-style fireplace, which is designed with a shallow firebox to radiate heat.
Thoughtful structural elements also make the house more comfortable. The walls are thick, heavily insulated, and covered in cool plaster. Also, an air space between the ceiling and the roof deck along with a reflective barrier funnels warm air up and out of the house through a ridge vent.
Going green can be fun
With its undulating plasterwork, it’s bright mirrored-tile mosaics, and many nooks and crannies, Casa Neverlandia feels like an eco-friendly funhouse. Visitors won’t find a doorbell as they approach the door; instead there’s a collection of bells, wood blocks, and xylophones to play to get the homeowners’ attention. The door might be “answered” in the form of a person’s voice echoing through a “talk tube,” a PVC pipe that courses behind the walls of the house and sprouts up into various rooms, including the bedroom, the bathroom, and the kitchen. “If I’m in the bedroom on the third floor, I can always tell when Kay is cooking because of the smell coming through the tube from the first floor,” says Talbot.
The house is filled with this kind of whimsy, both inside and out. Climb the backyard lookout tower for downtown views over the treetops of Austin, then walk across the chain-and-truss bridge to the third-floor balcony. From there you can slide down a fire pole to the second-floor balcony or push back the curtains and wander into the master bedroom, a menagerie of colors and patterns the couple calls the “Elvis in Las Vegas” room. Another fire pole leads to a future bathroom below, or you can walk down Captain Hook-like steps and onto a balcony that could double as a ship’s deck. There you can take stock of your crew—or rather the Bali room—the second-floor great room where Talbot and Kay do yoga and entertain friends.
“I was raised by playful parents,” says Kay. Talbot points to the Little Rascals and Peter Pan as inspiration. “I think Peter Pan was the first movie I ever saw,” he says. “Now we don’t have to go on vacation to go on vacation.”
These days, Talbot and Kay give paid tours of Neverlandia to folks who might notice the shimmering Plexiglas, mirror, and tile mosaics on the façade or the illuminated glass brick columns peering through the cedar and oak trees out front. “We like to share what we’ve done, and we hope there’s something to learn in terms of how to live uniquely and responsibly,” Talbot says. “We feel we’re giving people permission to play with their spaces.”