Case Study: The Perch by Nicole Blair

The couple, a landscape designer and a hairdresser, already owned a small compound of sorts—two bungalows (one pink and one blue) on side-by-side lots and a combined rear garden space they savored. But, as many of us do, they craved extra, better space. At the time they approached architect/builder Nicole Blair, AIA, they were seeking to remodel and expand the pink bungalow as their main residence, with the blue bungalow serving as the headquarters for the landscape business. “After getting through a set of plans to renovate the pink bungalow, they told me, ‘We’d love to build this, but we don’t know where we would move in the meantime,’” Nicole recalls. 

So architect and clients hatched the plan for a standalone outbuilding, with flexible spaces that could serve as dwelling, studio, or salon. It could be a place to move into during the bungalow renovation. But there was a caveat: “The clients told me they really like this idea of the flex space, but they’d love for it not to be in the backyard.” 

The clients had developed the outdoor space themselves over time, including several garden structures and a steel fence surrounding the property, and they wanted to preserve it. The outbuilding couldn’t go in back, and the existing buildings were already built to the side setbacks. Nicole’s solution? Capture the air rights above the blue bungalow with The Perch—a 660-square-foot, two-room structure with a small living area, full kitchen, full bath, and laundry area. 

Hovering above the blue bungalow, The Perch is a completely self-contained pod. “It was not really that difficult a problem. Basically, it’s as if the blue bungalow and The Perch were a two-story house, but there’s a gap between the two,” Nicole explains. “And it was really all dictated by the setback tent. It drove the angles in the design and the overall shape and size. We talked with the structural engineers, and they said it would work.” 

In fact, the structural engineers encouraged her to lighten up the structure. “They were amazing—they designed the steel even more minimally than I was expecting. They told us that if the columns pierce through the corners, we would not need as much lateral support.” The only catch is that the building moves. And this is where you really need to have your clients on board. 

“I love the movement, and fortunately, the clients do too,” says Nicole. “It’s the nature of a steel structure—like a large overpass or bridge—and we engineered for that. You can feel it when you’re walking up the stairs and into that front cantilevered room, there’s a slight motion to it.”

In the Pink

Taking design cues from the rusting steel elements on site—especially the perimeter fence—Nicole designed the building with raw steel cladding, corrugated metal roofing, and a custom fabricated steel stair and landing. After all, there’s a certain wistful poignance to Texas’ rusting-metal-object-in-the-field look that works well with Austin’s bohemian funkiness. However, as rusticated as the exterior is, The Perch’s sophisticated shape and detailing elevates it from artifact to architecture.  

Inside, the high level of refinement continues. Although the interior materials are not luxurious, they are carefully chosen and crafted. Nicole sought out budget savers wherever she could, but never at the expense of quality or design integrity. Layered on top is more keen detailing that makes every design decision sing.

The chorus starts with the pink—a lusciously warm and soothing pink she specified for the cabinet fronts in the living area and kitchen called California Coral from Behr. The color perfectly complements stock Burnt Pumpkin windows and sliding door units from Windsor Windows. A run of hall cabinets is a close match in Persimmon from Sherwin-Williams. Bedroom walls and ceilings are painted Nearly Peach and accent walls in Warming Peach, also from Sherwin-Williams. “I spent a lot of time sourcing the pinks. I wanted to pick up on the copper tones of the metal inside and outside to make moving through the spaces more seamless,” says Nicole.

You would think so much pink might evoke a popular stomach medicine but, instead, it suggests slowly warming sunrises. And it’s counterbalanced by the natural wood tones of the remnant rift- and flat-sawn white oak flooring Nicole located. Kitchen counters are Boos butcher block in an edge grain. And wood paneling inside and in the covered entry is fine-line tongue-and-groove in a penny gap detail. The paneling and all trim was prefinished in an Irish cream color, just a shade or two warmer than the White Blush from Benjamin Moore on the painted steel elements inside and on protected exterior areas.

“It was important to me that a portion of the interior be wood and not drywall,” she explains. “I didn’t want you to walk into the space after that dramatic arrival and have the interior feel generic. I wanted it to feel handmade and special. Also, with the building moving, wood is likely to be forgiving. The bathroom is at the core, which moves the least, so we used stucco and tile there. I wanted it to feel serene, and the whole space can function as a wet area.”

Design surprises abound in the tiny project—from the jaunty custom vent hood to the bespoke bathroom mirror, both echoing the dynamic shape of The Perch’s exterior. And those rustic elements from the exterior return as copper faucets and fittings in the bathroom and kitchen, sourced from a fabricator in Romania at a competitive price, says Nicole. Cabinet pulls throughout are rimmed in copper, too.

This project was all about constraints from the start—a tight budget, a tiny envelope to build within, a sacrosanct backyard—but Nicole saw only possibilities for invention and delight. “I often think the most beautiful solutions come when you’re given a seemingly impossible set of constraints and try to respond to them,” she says. “I wanted this project to look like something the clients would have designed if they were architects.”

The Perch

Austin, Texas

Project Credits

Architect/builder: Nicole Blair, AIA, Austin, Texas

Landscape Design: Dylan Robertson, D-CRAIN Design and Construction, Austin

Engineer: Amanda Dees and Ryan Stoltz, Structures, Austin

Project Size: 660 square feet

Site Size: 0.16 acre (blue bungalow lot)

Construction Cost: Withheld

Photography: Casey Dunn

Key Products

Cabinetry: Ikea (boxes)

Cladding: Western States Metal Roofing, corrugated

Cooking Ventilation: Imperial

Exterior Stair Fabrication/Installation: Drophouse Design

Exterior Steelwork/Trim: Pat’s Sheetmetal 

Entry Doors/Windows: Windsor Windows & Doors 

Faucets: Switch Range

HVAC: Mitsubishi, Trane

Lighting: Leviton; clients’ collection

Lighting Control: Lutron

Paints: Sherwin-Williams, Behr, Benjamin Moore

Range: Fisher & Paykel

Refrigerator/Freezer: SMEG

Roof Window: VELUX

Sinks: Randolph Morris (kitchen); Duravit

Stucco: LaHabra

Thermal/Moisture Barriers: Carlisle 

Tile: Artistic Tile

Toilet: Duravit

Underlayment/Sheathing: ZIP System

Washer/Dryer: Bosch, stackable