How Code Influences Form

In 2006 Austin created a subchapter of the Land Development Code that was meant to limit the amount of large three-story houses that were being built next to small - often one-story - houses. The code is nicknamed the McMansion Ordinance. In the years since it was adopted it is now becoming apparent that the code is systematically changing the built form of new residences throughout the urban core. For better or for worse the McMansion Ordinance has given rise to a particular kind of three story house that, while not the three-story “box” it was designed to eliminate, still allows a developer or homeowner to have a little more square footage - sometimes a lot.

Notice how these houses all share similarities. They all have roofs that pitch at 45 degree angles. They all look like two-story houses but have long shed dormers along the roof that enables a third floor. The reason for this is the McMansion Ordinance has a few exemptions built into it that enables additional square footage on a third floor to not be counted if the third floor is wholly “under roof”. The dormer is allowed to pop up and penetrate the McMansion tent if it is less that 15’ long. Therefor, developers are taking advantage of this exemption to gain extra square footage and therefor a higher sales price.

Portion of Subchapter F that allows for dormers to penetrate the McMansion “tent”

Portion of Subchapter F that allows for dormers to penetrate the McMansion “tent”

Is this better than having a neighborhood of three-story boxes? Does Subchapter F limit an architect’s creativity by forcing one to conform to a 45 degree gabled roof house? Is it better to sacrifice creativity to prevent gluttonous architecture? You be the judge.

Making Your Home Green

A Room-by-Room Guide to Making Your Home Green

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Image by pexels

There are many ways you can make your home green, whether you are building a new house or looking to make changes to your current home. Going green is not only good for the environment, but it can also save you money. To go green, there are many items that you need to take into consideration. This involves determining whether you’re looking to build a new green home or make your existing one green by incorporating environmentally friendly tactics to each room.

Updating Your Current Home


The kitchen is the heart of the home - and it’s also a room in your house that can be eco-friendly. The appliance that uses the most energy in the house is your refrigerator, so consider looking into one that is Energy Star rated. Also, make sure your fridge is well-sealed and set at the right temperature to keep your food safe, while also using less energy.

Living Room

To best support the environment – and your wallet - in your living room, use second hand furniture that is made from sustainable wood or recycled materials. It takes less energy to manufacture goods from recycled materials than from scratch, so salvaged furniture is a great way to reduce energy consumption in the grand scheme of things.

You can also literally go green in the living room by incorporating some plants into your décor. These won’t only add a little bit of style and freshness to your interior, but they will also naturally purify the air, eliminating toxins and improving your indoor air quality.


Typically, the main focal point in your bedroom is the bed itself, so make sure it’s environmentally friendly. With so many factors that you should consider in a mattress to ensure you’re consistently getting a good night’s sleep – environmental sustainability should be one of them.


If you’re using the bathroom toilet, showers, or sinks (which, of course, we all are), this would be a great place to start when thinking about going green in the bathroom. Some of the easiest steps to becoming more environmentally (and economically) friendly, is to cut down the amount of time spent taking showers and letting the faucet run. Instead, try a 5-minute shower, or even low-flow water heads that restrict the amount of water being used up.

Building a New Home

Although it is important to design your home for the size of your family, it’s no secret that a smaller home with the same energy-efficient construction techniques will have a smaller environmental footprint. This is not to say that you should restrict yourself from building your dream home but be mindful of the potential costs to both your wallet and the environment during the design phases.

When building a new green home, consider going solar – the ultimate source of clean, low-cost energy. Another great green design option for the home is to use sustainable materials. From the flooring to the foundations of the home, there are always environmentally friendly choices that are great for home insulation and climate control efficiencies. And if you’re having a hard time deciding what is best for your home, contact the professionals who can make this decision easy for you.

With so many different options to consider during the design stages and renovation phases of making your home green, it can be difficult to know where to start. Keep in mind that going green is a process – it’s not all going to happen at once. But do know that with every step you make towards greener living, the better off our planet, our children, and our ecosystems will be in the future.

Written by Elise Morgan

Second Project at The Outlook Now Complete

The Outlook is an upscale eclectic neighborhood located about 10 miles west of Austin between Oak Hill and Dripping Springs. Our second project in this development is now complete and we are very pleased with the result. Big thanks to our team of R Builders and Chris Browarski (interiors) for helping make this project shine.

Using Tile to Accentuate Interiors

There’s some really cool tile on the market that our clients and interior designers have been using to bring richness and texture to our interiors. These tiles reflect unique and historic patterns, sometimes resembling a Moroccan carpet or Victorian ballroom. The more modern ones may exhibit tessellation (an arrangement of shapes closely fitted together ), a circuit board pattern or bold colors and geometries. Some even mimic a three dimensional effect.

Tile that looks like wallpaper on a house we designed in South Austin.

Tile that looks like wallpaper on a house we designed in South Austin.

This tile has a distinct geometry and textured effect. A backsplash is the ideal place to use it since it won’t often need cleaning which may be difficult for this kind of tile.

This tile has a distinct geometry and textured effect. A backsplash is the ideal place to use it since it won’t often need cleaning which may be difficult for this kind of tile.

An otherwise plain bathroom can become interesting with the right use of tile.

An otherwise plain bathroom can become interesting with the right use of tile.

The floor tile on this bathroom would not be out of place on a 18th century bath house however it adds richness to this modern bath on our Peacock Residence.

The floor tile on this bathroom would not be out of place on a 18th century bath house however it adds richness to this modern bath on our Peacock Residence.

Featured Project: Peacock Residences

We are excited to share images of our recently completed project in South Austin. A duplex home, the Peacock Residences were conceived as a series of interlocking boxes with different colors and textures. The boxes serve to set up various internal geometries, bringing natural light into a tight urban lot without sacrificing privacy. The site is located on Terrell Hill, the highest point in South Austin, and features commanding views of St. Edward’s University and downtown Austin.

The Starter Home

Buying a starter home? Here's what you need to know.

Many first-time homebuyers, especially in competitive markets, end up in starter homes as a part of their first foray into the real estate market.

The idea of a "starter home" goes back to World War II. After veterans completed their service, they returned home and took advantage of a provision in the G.I. Bill that guaranteed them affordable mortgages. The increased demand caused a housing boom, specifically for smaller, low-cost homes where the veterans could start their families.

Historically, these properties tend to be smaller in size than one might expect from a single-family unit, but the idea behind them is two-fold: these smaller properties help introduce individuals to the responsibilities of homeownership, while also serving as a launching pad-- something to help a homeowner build equity before eventually moving on to a bigger and better property.

What to look for in a starter home

If you think you might be in the market for a starter property, here are some features you’ll want to keep in mind:


Since this is your first time worrying about a mortgage payment, you might not be able to borrow as much, or you may not feel comfortable doing so. As the buyer, you’ll want to ask your lender to work up closing costs for you until you feel confident that you’ll be able to confidently make your payment each month.


Starter homes tend to be much smaller than other homes on the market, both to keep costs down and upkeep manageable. As you look at homes, think seriously about how much space you truly need. Often, just one extra bedroom is more than enough room for first-time buyers.


Townhomes and condos are particularly popular options as first-time homes because they allow buyers to experience a lot of the positive aspects of homeownership without too much responsibility.

If you’re in the market for a living situation where much of the home maintenance is taken care of for you, a condo or townhome may be a good option. Just be sure to research the specific services that each community offers, as well as any associated fees.

Resale value / income potential

Since starter homes tend to be more of a stepping stone than a permanent solution, many first-time buyers go into to the purchase with a vague idea of what will happen once they outgrow this phase of their lives. Whether you’d rather sell the property or keep it and rent it out for passive income, the ability to attract future interest is key. For this reason, most starter homes are located in popular neighborhoods, with easy access to amenities like restaurants, bars, and public transportation options.

Should you buy a starter home?

While, ultimately, only you can decide whether or not now is the right time for you to join the real estate market, here are a few signs that you might just be ready to take the jump into first-time homebuying:

You’re financially stable

Even though starter home values are lower, you should still have a stable income, a handle on your debt and credit rating, and some amount of savings to put towards a downpayment. Additionally, you feel comfortable with the idea of being able to handle a monthly mortgage payment, as well as any unforeseen maintenance expenses that could crop up.

You’re settled (for now)

Even though your starter home probably won’t end up being your forever home, it’s still much more permanent than simply signing a year-long lease. Before you get your heart set on buying, you should double-check to make sure that you feel comfortable maintaining your life- your job, social circle, and surrounding area - as-is for the foreseeable future.

...But not too settled

These days, people are starting their path to homeownership later in life. If you’re in a place where you’re almost ready to start a family and you have a decent income, it may make more sense for you to keep saving and skip the starter home in favor of a larger property that will allow you and your family to grow as needed.

You’re willing to compromise

Too often, buyers are surprised to find that their starter home budget isn’t nearly enough to get everything on their wishlist.

Homeownership, especially in the first-time home bracket, is bound to come with a certain degree of compromise. Ideally, when you’re ready to make a purchase, you’ll be able to focus on foundational details like the home’s location and square footage rather than aesthetics. Those surface projects can often be changed to your tastes over time as you settle in.

This article originally appeared on OpenListings.

Austin Mobility

Mobility is a subject that comes up often in architectural circles around Austin. Understandably so, with Austin ranking in the top ten cities in the country for traffic congestion and commute times. For years the city has talked about possible solutions ranging from light rail, to subways to autonomous vehicles and even a sky tram over Lady Bird Lake. In a way open market capitalism has introduced several alternatives without being one broad solution; ride-sharing, carpool sharing, Car2Go, motorized scooters and bicycles have given the populus alternatives to dealing directly with traffic. And now Capital Metro, the governing agency for mass transit in Austin, has unveiled their latest idea - light rail coupled with autonomous buses. To read more about their plans check out the article in the Austin Business Journal.

Published in "Old Houses Made New"

Old Houses Made New is a new book that features amazing house transformations from around the world. The book is published through a Spanish publisher but it’s available in all the major retailers. Check the feature of our Clarksville Cottage designed by our E5A principal Richard Hughes.

Revitalizing Sears Roebuck and Co.

Once the nation’s top reseller, today Sears announced it was considering filing for bankruptcy. How tragic is that? Sears has historically been a diverse and all-in-one company - they sell high quality products, from appliances to power tools and athletic equipment. Founded in 1892 by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck, Sears has been iconic with American working class products for over 120 years.

The eminent restructuring of the company has made me think, what would I do if I were the new CEO? Of course as an architect I thought back to the years when Sears was known for their innovative Catalog Homes. From 1908 to 1942 Sears sold well-designed small to medium size homes that could be purchased as a kit of parts, delivered by boxcar train, to be assembled by the buyer. If I were CEO I’d bring back the pre-fab home but create a new modern standard for innovation. Think of it, Sears sells just about everything that you need for a home - appliances, HVAC equipment, water heaters, power tools - all at a high level of quality. Sears could outfit a complete home or simply sell the shell and homeowners could choose how to finish-out the home to their own taste.

There’s certainly a demand for small well-crafted designer homes that’s not being met. We at Element 5 Architects have several tiny homes in the works. We have our own portfolio of tiny homes (also known in these parts as Accessory Dwelling Units), ranging from small (600sf), medium (900sf) and large (1100sf). All are quite liveable and desirable among the younger generation and older generation alike. While these homes tend to be more affordable because of their size I think that’s only a part of their appeal. People simply find it appealing to live in compact accomodations, a part of the small carbon footprint and living simple movements.

Typical Sears Catalog Home

Typical Sears Catalog Home

I would start with just that - a series of well-conceived, complete package designs in small medium and large sizes, all compact and innovative. The homes would offer modern technology that’s not typically seen in homes these days. Smart thermostats, lighting, voice-recognition, passive and active heating and cooling, tight ergonomics, modern fixtures. Think along the lines of Backcountry Hut Company, Kasita or Drop Structures…even some of the work we’re doing at Element 5! Here’s to hoping Sears reads our blog and finds inspiration to revitalizing the company.

These are just a handful of examples of tiny homes E5A has designed over the years.

New Branding

We've been working on revising our image a little bit through a new logo, business cards and letterhead. We've also added some new projects to the website. We felt that the previous branding did not reflect the modern simplicity of our architectural designs. Michael Schembri did a great job working with a difficult group of micro-managing designers.  Please have a look and let us know what you think!


E5A Welcomes New Staff

Please join us in welcoming two new staff members to Element 5 Architecture.

Born in New York City, Faye has spent time living in Nigeria, Atlanta, San Francisco, San Antonio and most recently Austin. Faye holds an undergraduate degree in Interior Design and a Master of Architecture, both from the Academy of Arts University, San Francisco. Faye has a dog named Chloe and loves exploring Austin's art and social scenes.

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Samantha Anderson was born in Springfield, IL and received a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from Ball State University and a Master of Architecture from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. After spending some time working for an architect in Las Vegas she decided Austin was a better fit for her. Sam has a cats named Boots and Luna and a boyfriend who shall remain unnamed.

NARI Home Tour

Our Clarkesville home on W. 11th Street was on the NARI Home Tour the weekend of April 7th. NARI is the National Association of the Remodelling Industry and homes on the tour were either remodelled and/or added onto. Our 11th St. home was originally built in the 1920's and was approximately 550sf. We kept and remodelled the front 150sf of the original house, made that the entry and small office, and added a 2-story addition that brought the house up to 2,200sf. No small task given that the lot is only 3,200sf total. Working within a Nation Historical District added to the complexity of the process but it also added to the charm.

Charleston, SC - Sold!

Our first project in Charleston, SC is complete and sold quickly. The new owners loved the design and complimented the build quality. Congratulations and a big thank you to Gas Lantern Custom Homes for including us in their team. We are looking forward to our next project just across the bridge on Daniel Island. 

Coming Soon...

Soon to break ground, watch for this 2000sf residence we designed for a site overlooking downtown in east Austin. The design features 3 bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths, an open plan and a large roof deck with "in your face" views of downtown off the back. This project marks our first project for Shaun Ryan of Cantegra Developments.

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The Starbucks Effect

We do a lot of residential design at Element 5 Architecture - approximately 75% of our work is designing single-family and multi-family new homes, remodels and additions. So of course we keep up with local real estate trends. I recently read a book written by the founders of Zillow called "Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate" by Spencer Rascoff and Stan Humphries (Grand Central Publishing). It's a fascinating read and it explains some of the myths and hidden truths about the post-recession real estate market.  

One interesting finding known as The Starbucks Effect states that value of homes within a 1/4 mile of a Starbucks rise faster than those that don't. In fact one area of Boston within a 1/4 mile of Starbucks saw home values increase 171% between 1997-2013. That's the largest increase in the country. 

Austin is no stranger to rapidly increasing home values. However, one area that is increasing the most is East Austin where our office is located and where many of our projects are located. Funny thing is, East Austin (the 78702 zip code) has NO Starbucks at all! There are plenty of local coffee shops and there may be a Starbucks on the horizon (in fact we had a developer in our office recently who was interested in providing space for Starbucks in his East Austin project) but for now home values continue to rise at a rapid pace without one.

Perhaps the fact that Zillow HQ is located in Seattle has influenced the authors' world view. 

Recent Work in Austin

Here's a look at our latest projects in and around Austin. Some have recently completed construction and others are just about to start...

Cumberland Residences - two speculative houses in south central Austin, just completed.

Cumberland Residences - two speculative houses in south central Austin, just completed.

Waller Street Residence - a new 2,000sf house near downtown is about to break ground.

Clarkesville House - recently completed 1,700 sf house on a compact lot in central Austin.

Northwest Hills Residence - a 3,300sf home overlooking the hills of west Austin is in the design phase.

Development Continues in Charleston

Charleston, SC is one of the most booming cities in the US, frequently making top ten lists for growth and economic prosperity. Although we're known for modern eco-conscious designs, E5A has shifted to more traditional designs for our work in Charleston. We always say good design is good design regardless of style and our houses in Charleston continue to follow principles of proper solar orientation, capturing prevailing breezes and energy efficiency while fitting into the coastal Carolina vernacular. Our first house is nearly complete in Mt. Pleasant, just across the Cooper River from Charleston.

Front View

Front View

Construction almost complete on house in Mt. Pleasant, SC (Charleston)

Construction almost complete on house in Mt. Pleasant, SC (Charleston)

Currently we are working on our next house in the Charleston area, a luxury community called Daniel Island. Here's a preview of the design:


What's Trending Among Architects

We can only speak for ourselves - and the crowd of peers with whom we associate - but here are some of the issues architects are following these days.

The Changing Retail World

E-commerce continues to take over the market. Brick and mortar stores are struggling to survive. Adapt or perish. And then there's Amazon's $13.7B purchase of Whole Foods. What's going on? How will this affect our built environment? One trend that appears to be emerging is medium scale retailers are having a very difficult time with the changing paradigm. Shopping malls as a whole are starting to fail or need to evolve into mixed-use retail like The Domain and The Hill Country Galleria in Austin. In order to survive malls have had to broaden their roles to include housing and entertainment (in the case of The Domain) and civic uses like a library and City Hall (in the case of The Galleria).

Many malls have closed their doors. Those malls located in suburban areas with a singular use are suffering the most. But there's opportunity where there's failure. For example, a mixed-use town center development called Belmar in Lakewood, Colorado was once known as Villa Italia Mall, a very typical suburban mall with one huge building surrounded by acres of parking. In 2002 the mall was redeveloped into a more urban town center for this city of 150,000 inhabitants. To read more about this story visit this site. Closer to home, Austin Community College has converted Highland Mall in north Austin into it's flagship campus. It's close to a light rail stop and development is underway for housing and retail.

Redevelopment plan for Highland Mall, Austin, TX

Redevelopment plan for Highland Mall, Austin, TX

How to Create Affordable Housing in Austin

Austin continues to grow at a rapid pace and property values continue to climb out of reach of many middle- and upper middle-class residents. City leaders have several proposals in the works which include subsidies to developers for "affordable" housing, adding density to inner city neighborhoods (with the hope that density brings smaller, cheaper houses...we'll see) and developing city-owned land into affordable rental and ownership units. Click here to view the city's Strategic Housing Blueprint.

What's Next for Mass Transit

The subject of mass transit in Austin is worthy of a dedicated blog post. In the early nineties the principals of Element 5 Architecture were engaged in a study of routes and transit stations for Austin's proposed light rail - that's how long we as a city have been thinking about this subject. In the meantime, very little has been accomplished on a macro scale. Sure, we now have a limited light rail system, bus routes continue to be modified to fit changing demographics and grassroots solutions such as ride-sharing, Car 2 Go, Zip Car and B-Cycle have given people other options. However, there hasn't been a plan to affordably move large portions of the population other than by automobile.

One thing is certain to us architects: transportation affects the built environment. Light rail stations are a magnet for further development. The popularity of cycling - even in a city where the summer heat is so intense - leads to dedicated bike paths and bike storage at buildings. Even options such as ride-sharing and car-sharing lead to reduced parking requirements and every architect will tell you the most influential part of every urban design is providing for the automobile.

Remodeling and Home Design
Austin Architects & Designers