Welcome to Casa Neverlandia

Whimsical and wonderful, this Austin eco-remodel is a playful expression of two highly creative minds.

| January/February 2004

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.

Conservation pays

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.”

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