Minding the Manor: A Cast Earth Home in Texas

A couple’s dream of building a castle becomes a sustainable reality.

| November/December 2008

  • Lisa Chronister and Elliot Johnson's Austin, Texas, home is designed to fit in naturally with its landscape.
  • Lisa designed and built the modern stained-glass transom above the door. An antique dresser, inherited from Lisa's mother, brings the home's connection with history into the bedroom.
  • Elliot and Lisa enjoy dining on furniture that Lisa has owned for 20 years.
  • Homeowner Lisa Chronister created the Tiffany-inspired stained glass panel for the front door.
    Photos By Paul Bardagjy
  • Elliot sits on one of the home's many porches. Pup Pyro helps out camera-shy Lisa by posing in her place.
  • Elliot salvaged the metal pot rack above the island counter, along with many of the kitchen cabinets, from clients who were redesigning their homes.
  • A copper artisan in Mexico custom-made the copper sink nearly five years before construction on the house began.
  • With hand-applied earthen walls and arched doorways, the living room houses many interesting pieces, including an antique area rug inherited from Elliot's grandparents and antique French doors with stained-glass panels that Lisa made to match the original transoms above them.
  • Elliot and Lisa designed these niches to display the antique Chinese roof tiles Elliot inherited from his grandparents.
  • Australian cypress stairs with dry-stacked stone risers lead to the lower level.
  • As the first building constructed on the lot, Lisa's stained glass studio offered a practice for building with cast earth. Elliot designed the natural pond.
  • This landing and reading nook is a Tudor-style detail that was easy to incorporate thanks to the thick, cast-earth walls. The stair post was made from a cedar tree on the property.

With its Old World architecture and angular shapes, Elliot Johnson and Lisa Chronister’s cast earth home in Austin, Texas, looks like it came straight from the pages of a storybook. “French Country is very popular around here,” Lisa says, “but we wanted something else. We wanted a castle.”

Elliot, an architect, and Lisa, a reference librarian at a community college, wanted a home that reflected their values. Winner of the 2008 MAX Award (Marketing Award for Excellence) for Best Green Home, Elliot and Lisa’s eco-conscious “castle” includes a photovoltaic solar system, a thermal chimney for natural cooling, a tight thermal envelope and almost all salvaged interior materials.

The couple spent six years looking for a lot—with character—and three more years developing their English manor. The 1,547-square-foot home rests within a highly sloped, northeast-facing 5-acre terrain of Texas cedar trees and fine Spanish Oak trees,  which proved challenging to build on. “We had a hard time convincing contractors to drive onto our lot with a crane,” Lisa says. “One time Elliot even had to drive a delivery person’s truck onto our lot because they wouldn’t. But it can be done.”

Once Upon a Time

After more than two years of carefully clearing the heavily overgrown lot, Elliot and Lisa started building. Elliot created an open floor plan that made it easy for spaces to flow into one another: The kitchen area leads into the family room, which leads into the breakfast room. Placed beneath 10-foot ceilings, the design makes the space seem larger than it really is.

To manage the hot Texas summers without guzzling energy, the home-owners installed a thermal chimney and a photovoltaic system. The thermal chimney harnesses natural convection—the principle that heat rises. Leading through the home and out the highest point, the chimney releases hot air through vents in a cupola at the top of the home and pulls cooler air in through the lower windows. The photovoltaic system saves about $500 a year in energy costs.

To further increase energy efficiency, Elliot installed spray-foam insulation in the roof deck rather than in the ceiling, where it’s typically done. “This is the most energy-efficient thing you can do to a home in this type of climate,” Elliot says. “It puts all the duct equipment inside the thermal envelope.” In a typical home, insulation is placed in the ceiling, which creates a pocket of hot air (up to 120 degrees) in the attic where ductwork is located. Insulating the attic allows the equipment to run more efficiently. Heating and cooling equipment also work more efficiently if it’s the correct size for the home, so Elliot and Lisa hired a home-performance specialist to help them choose their HVAC unit.

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