Pro-File Design: Nick Deaver Architect

Architect Nick Deaver, AIA, has deep roots in Texas. He grew up there and went to school at Texas Tech, but then he headed east to practice at the storied firm of Moore Grover Harper in Connecticut. Yes, he is one of the many practicing residential architects who absorbed some of the DNA of the hugely influential and peripatetic Charles Moore.

While at Centerbrook, as the firm became known after Charles moved on, Nick worked on everything from houses to “genetics laboratories.” Although working at every scale, his mentors’ approach of imbuing each building with a sense of its place, its history, and its culture became fundamental to Nick’s goals as an architect. 

When the projects became larger and more bureaucratic, with all the heartbreak that brings (multiyear endeavors unplugged at the last minute), Nick decided it was time to return to his home state. He moved his family to Austin and became his own first client in his new small residential practice. “I had the problem of having all my experience and contacts in one part of the country and none here,” he says. 

He and his wife bought a dilapidated 1919 bungalow in a dense urban neighborhood now designated the West Line Historic District, and he slowly renovated and expanded it into a remarkable house, studio, and rental apartment. Meanwhile, he built his new practice from the ground up, working with builders and doing smaller jobs for clients. “People came to me mostly for space, but it was important to me to introduce them to architecture—even just a little bit.” Twenty-five years later, clients still come to him looking for space, but they also seek out the sophisticated architecture that elevates every aspect of its experience. 

“We built the practice little by little,” he recalls, but the firm got a big boost from Austin’s long-running house tour program. “It’s one of the oldest in the country. We ended up getting a house on that tour and then later, four or five. Because of that, it’s given us publicity and exposure. What it’s meant, is that we’ve stayed busy since that home tour in 2003.”

Big Inside, Little Outside 

His own house and studio ended up on the tour, and it represents a number of the firm’s strengths: a respect and sensitivity to existing community, context, and culture and a special talent for preserving them while injecting a modern sensibility. He applies, to both renovations and new construction, modern materials and methods, adroit choreography of contemporary patterns of life, and a deft handling of spatial relationships within the house and the adjacent outdoor living areas. 

It’s readily apparent from looking at the progression of the firm’s projects that it’s perfectly capable of the kind of showcase architecture that grabs attention in the media. But while the work is always architecturally compelling and rigorous, it’s unusually modest as well. It doesn’t scream “look at me” as much as “look at a job well done.” 

This is a very deliberate direction Nick and now his daughter Jes Deaver, who joined the practice five years ago, have chosen to take. They don’t want their architecture to overwhelm and recharacterize the neighborhoods they occupy. This set of priorities is especially important as Austin’s population has grown, putting tremendous pressure on existing housing and fueling quick and often careless new construction. Builders and developers are incentivized to scrape off older houses and replace them with high-end houses that max out the buildable envelope and the potential sales price. It’s a ruinous trajectory for small-scale, older neighborhoods.

And the problem is not confined to new builds, Nick points out: “It’s becoming fashionable to put a modern addition on a historic house here, but it often results in a severe juxtaposition. Our thought is, even though we like the departure, we think we owe our clients the larger context. Even the modern addition needs to belong to the original structure. Even if it’s dramatic, it needs to belong to that house alone.”

Nick took the challenge to heart with his own house. He kept the bungalow character intact as viewed from the street and inserted a modern studio space and rental apartment underneath at the rear. A new covered porch in back also keeps the basic bungalow gable but articulates it in an abstract screen of “wind-driven vertical aluminum louvers.” Throughout, new interior spaces are bright and airy and clean, with a mix of careful, traditional detailing and fresh modern touches.  

Every choice he made was about right-sizing the new and existing spaces, and avoiding unnecessary extra rooms—or volume for the sake of volume. “We’re trying to show how we can fit within this existing context with proportion and scale. We wanted to show a modern house can belong in a historic neighborhood,” he says.

His house was not in a national historic district when he began work on it, but ultimately it was made so. So far, Austin’s historic districts have been tolerant of progress, he says, as long as it’s implemented with respect to the existing fabric.

“Not every client that comes along is completely aligned with our sensitivities,” he observes. “Sometimes it’s difficult for someone to give up tall ceilings and extra rooms. But we have techniques to give them vaulted spaces, while keeping the eaves in proportion with the scale of the neighborhood—to create a big inside and a little outside. We want to protect both the clients’ interest and the neighborhood’s interest.”

Story Time

Nick’s daughter, Jes Deaver, AIA, has brought her own sensibilities to the firm, honed by her work with a West Coast architecture firm but even more so by her background as a filmmaker and writer. Her perspective has sharpened the firm’s dedication to the process of custom design and construction, as experienced by the clients. Nicks calls it “an architectural discovery mission.”

And often that means including neighborhood stakeholders, too, so their voices and concerns are heard. This helps diffuse the adversarial relationship that can develop when change happens around the neighbors, Nick says. Adds Jes, “One thing that’s nice about that, is it allows the neighborhood to have a meaningful connection to that house. It’s a lasting relationship.” 

“When we do that with the neighbors, the zoning people, and historic commission, the only problems we are left to tackle are what to do with the land,” Nick concludes.

With clients, Nick and Jes aim for a good balance of letting them in on some of the challenges of design decision making, but not so much they lose confidence. “They are part of our architectural team—we don’t want design to be a mystery. We want to go on a journey with them,” says Nick. “They will watch us struggle, but not so much that they get discouraged or worried.”

During that process, Nick and Jes try to tease out memories from their clients that they can use to make their home more personal and resonant. A case in point: “We were designing an addition to a client’s grandfather’s house,” Nick recalls. “She recounted a tree she used to love that was no longer there. So we designed in a detail that evoked a tree. And now every time she walks through the house with someone, she always tells that story. It became a part of the story of the house.”

“By connecting clients to the story we’re telling through the design, it gives them a story to tell and a language to describe how they love their house that they can share with others,” says Jes. “It adds to the excitement they have when others experience the spaces, too.”

To read more of our coverage of RaveOn, Shibui, and Lean Too, click on the links below: