Ramp House

The Ramp House, so named because of its gracefully sloped interior walkway, is one of three spec houses designed and built by M.J. Neal, AIA, in the same transitioning South Austin neighborhood. One might presume that a house with a ramp as its primary circulation is a folly, however, like one's shoes, visitors are asked to leave presumptions and prejudices at the front door.

"The Ramp House is a study in time and movement," says Neal, who lives in the house with his family. "I wanted to play with the fourth dimension, time; to deliberately slow down the pace of travel through the house. I wanted people to experience the sequence of space differently than just racing upstairs."

And, indeed, the unique spatial experience starts just inside the front door where the ramp immediately begins its gentle ascent at the foyer. Constructed of a steel pipe framework with its surface and substructure of 3 1/2-inch solid ipe wood, the ramp is essentially a sculptural element that functions all at once as a means of vertical circulation, a spatial delineator, a massive bookshelf - a solid wood grid structure inserted in between the ascending and descending legs - and a modern objet d'arte.

The climb to the top yields an unexpected surprise: the second floor's living room, kitchen, and dining area. The upper level, like the lower, is another large volume organized by furniture placement, casework, and a floor pattern reminiscent of Japanese tatami. The pattern is, in fact, a tectonic expression of structure that is seen again on the ceiling. Where the ramp extends space vertically, the layout of the first floor extends space horizontally and outwardly into exterior courtyards. The first floor - which includes the master bedroom, master bath, second bedroom and a small reading area - is partitioned with pivoting, sliding, and swinging doors and wall panels, which allow many spatial configurations. Such flexibility is useful in a 2,400-sf house, of which the ramp consumes 230 sf. When asked if the ramp takes up too much space relative to the total floor area, Neal responds, "Of course, it is how you look at it. However, it is not inefficient at all because it offers spaces in, on, and under it to read, study, and play. Kids especially love the ramp. It really is a very versatile use of space."

On the question of the insertion of Neal's three distinctly modern houses in a neighborhood of vintage homes from the 1930s, Neal says, "We don't live like they did when these houses were originally built. What was at one time a very typical suburban neighborhood is now, by virtue of proximity to downtown, a very urban environment." That switch from suburban to urban, Neal notes, is evident by the many drawn blinds on his neighbors' street-facing windows. He says that demonstrates the neighborhood's inward focus that is characteristic of the urban residential experience, as opposed to suburbia where residents look out on their front yard and to the street. "I wanted to bring a more urban mentality to this neighborhood," Neal says, "to show people how to utilize this very small piece of land and get a lot out of it, a lot more spatial experiences; to show them they don't have to have their house closed off."

But, he adds, an urban or modern site response does not free the designer from being sensitive to the adjacent historic structures. "I went to great lengths to look at the scale and proportions of the adjacent houses and to be cognizant of those things," he says. "This was so that this home didn't become this massive 'thing' sitting here...unlike a lot of the pseudo-traditional homes being built." The Ramp House does nestle into and use the site very well. However, even with sensitivity to adjacent scale and proportion, the combination of materials, form, and detail makes this house obviously different than its neighbors. Nevertheless, the house successfully achieves the design intent. Neal has created a house that does challenge conventional notions of movement and time by forcing one to slow down and observe the surrounding space. In our age of haste, that is something we are less and less inclined to do.

--Michael Antenora, AIA, is principal of Antenora Architects LLP in Austin