This Austin architect’s modern masterpiece takes flight. See the article.
“Soaring wings, the hilltop house that takes its migrating moniker from the uplifting copper eaves, lords over the landscape like a bald eagle in its feathered nest. What the winged wonder spies from its tri-level glass perch deep in the heart of West Lake Hills, a pebble’s throw from Austin in the verdant hill country of Texas, are the beauty of lake and forest and the comings and goings of the fox and the deer.
“The house, which has green features, was designed to have a dialog with nature,” says architect Winn Wittman, whose Austin-based eponymous firm spent four years creating the home. “It brings nature into the lives of the owners, and is conducive to healthy living.”
What Soaring Wings seductively whispered to nature caught the ears of Greg and Contessa McPike. So smitten were they with the idea of a naturalistic lifestyle that they traded their Houston apartment for it so they could raise their children, 11-year-old Aaron and 7-year-old Arianna, in what Contessa says is “not a house, but a work of art.”
Her description takes no artistic license: Wittman, whose houses are influenced by the great modernist architects of the 20th century, sees his work as living sculptures, and Soaring Wings, a vision in copper and Texas shellstone, is his masterpiece.
From its filigree-like structure of red iron, whose intricate pieces are welded together to form a fine piece of jewelry, to its hand-seamed copper panels, the house is a feat of engineering and artful design. The first level—the smallest—houses a media room, wine cellar and garage. The second level contains the bedrooms, living room, dining room and kitchen. At the top level, a gallery with 40-foot floor-to-ceiling glass panels offers gorgeous views of the swimming pool and landscape. Two wings, reached via a two-story glass-and-steel bridge, separate the private and public spaces of the 6,100-square-foot home, which also features an elevator.
“I wanted to build an exceptional house, and this one represents the culmination of over 15 years of my work as an architect,” says Wittman, adding that innovations by Austin-based builder Gary Robinson of Home As Art were instrumental to the project’s success. “I used light as a way to bring the outside in, and I incorporated green features, using materials like copper and steel that will last a lifetime and have high recycled content.”
Energy-efficiency was an integral component in Soaring Wings’ design. Siting the home on the western exposure limits the sun’s impact, and the thick stone walls and curvaceous copper wings act as cool insulators in the heat of the day. The 146 windows are covered with V-Kool film, which blocks 99 percent of UV light and 70 percent of sunlight and heat, and are shaded with stainless steel–mesh panels and motorized Lutron QED shades that automatically raise and lower in sync with the sun via the Home Works System.
Inside, seven heating and cooling zones make maximum use of energy in all seasons. Cellulose insulation made from recycled newspapers and insulated panels give the walls a high R value. The sublime stair tower acts like a chimney by drawing in air at the bottom and passively exhausting it at the top. Rainwater collected in a cistern under the garage is used to water the landscape, which is filled with agave, bamboo, horsetail and other water-conserving plants. And the heated, black-granite Pebble Tec swimming pool is chlorine-free: It uses a saltwater and ozone purification system.Soaring Wings also maintains sustainability with a variety of other eco-centric materials. “Domestic softwoods, mainly vertical-grain fir, were used as finishes,” Wittman says, adding that the laminated floors are made of waste wood topped with a clear heartwood veneer. “Although this usually is not done on a high-end house such as this one, beautiful veneers are commonly available, and the result looks like a fine guitar top or the soundboard of an instrument.”
The kitchen’s CaesarStone countertops employed recycled glass, the closets and cabinetry are fabricated with medium-density fiberboard—which is made of sawdust and other recycled wood—and the paint is low-VOC. The green theme is further emphasized by its color scheme: The light exterior palette is accented by the spring-green grid pattern of the stair tower and bridge.
The McPikes, who are recently retired, are at one with the house and their new environment. “The house has a Zen-ful feel,” Greg says. “In the morning when I walk around in it, I see the sun and at night, moonlight.”
After sipping their morning coffee on the front patio and getting the children on the school bus, the McPikes putter around Soaring Wings, lounging on its decks and enjoying their luxurious, healthy lifestyle. “I never knew such peace could exist,” Contessa says. “We are here all day long, and don’t find ourselves wanting to wander. Every evening, Greg sits on the front stoop and looks at the house. I’ve never been a cook, but this house has inspired me to make gourmet meals every day.”
And sometimes they simply marvel at the views. “The living room was designed to collide with the pool, so when you are at one end of the room, it’s like sitting in the water,” Contessa says. “And because of all the glass, I am connected to every part of the house, no matter where I am. This is a great feature when we have parties, because people can wander around and still feel as though they are all in the same room.”
More than anything else, the house is a natural sanctuary, a place where the McPikes can feel at home, regardless of what is going on in the wider world. And when Contessa wants to clear her mind and soothe her body, all she has to do is soak in her egg-shaped, gray granite tub that sits on a bed of beach pebbles overlooking the Japanese rock garden.
“I take great pleasure in lounging in the tub,” she says. “It’s pure sinful delight.”
As, she says, is Soaring Wings. So much so that she and Greg are finding that the best place to stay is right at home, where the world is literally right under their own wings.
“We had plans to travel, but this place is so nice that we don’t like to leave it,” Greg says.
Contessa, his other wing, chimes in, “When you live in heaven, why go anywhere else?'”