Verbatim: McKinney York Discusses Its Alley Dwelling Prototype

McKinney York Architects in Austin, Texas, designs buildings of all types, but the common denominator across all of them is their human scale and warmth. Even the bank buildings they design exude an inviting domesticity. This deep understanding of comfort and appeal is especially suited to residential work, and the firm always has a substantial number of dwellings on the boards. This project in Austin’s North Loop brings to bear the firm’s problem-solving abilities, its expertise in residential work, and its design ingenuity—all distilled into a compact, 850-square-foot accessory dwelling unit (ADU).

Austin is among the many cities attempting to densify its existing neighborhoods as a way to increase housing inventory and affordability. The jurisdiction is already several iterations into its revision of residential zoning codes, and even more generous codes are on the horizon. 

The client who brought this project to architect Heather McKinney, FAIA, and project architect Aaron Taylor, AIA, already had a small house on the property—a 1930s bungalow that was only 940 square feet, with just two bedrooms and a single bathroom, on a relatively ample 6,200-square-foot lot. Many homeowners in these older neighborhoods, faced with increasing property values in up-and-coming markets, are choosing to blow out the main house on the lot—maximizing square footage, but also frequently violating the scale of the street. 

This client, however, understood the value of his alley-access lot and decided to take a more progressive approach to its development. He knew he wanted a second dwelling, but was unsure of his ultimate goal for the property and wanted to keep all options open. So, he pushed the architects to work in as much function and livability as they could into its highly constrained envelope. 

The result is a two bedroom, two-and-a-half bath house with commodious indoor/outdoor living options and—believe it or not—a two-car garage. Such a program can support a wide variety of domestic arrangements—roommates, a small family, a live-work flat, and more. 

Heather and Aaron think this project offers a great template for how to address and answer the potential of ADU-friendly residential codes. 

RD: Tell us about the neighborhood and context for this project. 

Heather McKinney, FAIA

HM: This is one of our inner city’s really desirable, wonderful neighborhoods just north of the core. It’s noted for its bungalows, its nice scale of houses, and big, mature trees. It’s a very walkable neighborhood. I think it would fall under New Urbanism—there are small groceries relatively close by. A lot of people live here and bicycle to the university or to work. Fortunately, a lot of the streets have alleys, which lent itself to the idea of doing this alley dwelling. 

Austin has been working for a while on a form-based code to help deal with problems of affordability in its close-in neighborhoods. It’s giving enormous flexibility to the owners of property for how they can use it in the future. There are lots of plusses from an urban planning standpoint, but among the greatest are keeping neighborhoods intact and allowing people to age in place. 

The code we were working with for this project was more constrained with regard to size and placement of the building, but it still allowed us some creativity in the amount of living space that can be open air or enclosed. The new code is a lot more expansive with where ADUs can be and is less restrictive all around. We went to the limit of what was possible at the time. I think our client was really open. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, whether he was going to sever it and sell it or rent it. It allowed us to push the envelope.

Aaron Taylor, AIA

AT: It’s possible to condo-ize the units. It would be very unlikely to subdivide the lot, as the city of Austin has minimum lot requirements. The owner was thinking he might stay in the bungalow, rent both units, or a third option would be condo-ize both and sell them. So, there are two parking spaces for the rear unit. There’s an open air but private feel to one of the slots. It can be an outdoor terrace, or you can put a car there. It could also be used for something else, like studio space.  

Photography by ©Thomas McConnell

HM: The lot came with the almost ubiquitous challenge of trees. There’s a great big tree right between those two garage pieces. But when you’re upstairs, it’s like you’re in a treehouse. It provides some screening and the foliage gives you some privacy. Those live oaks always have leaves. 

AT: The bungalow in front has siding. We wanted to do siding that was sympathetic with that. And the owner was in the process of reroofing the bungalow with metal, so we matched that. We tried to be sympathetic to the color palette of the bungalow, and kept the basic window sizes similar. For the front entry porch, we introduced some cedar. 

HM: We wanted to make sure that coming down the driveway was warm and inviting. There’s a fence that controls that space, then you walk through a little gate to that back courtyard, and there’s a wooden enclosure.

AT: There are windows in each building that are winking at each other. The porch on the bungalow opens to the porch on the ADU. They share a congenial but private relationship.


AT: On the interior, we wanted something very clean and modern, but not too cold. Wall finishes are matte-finished drywall. The first floor has a polished slab floor, and it was pretty simple and efficient from a budget standpoint. We did spend a lot on the NanaWall that allows the living room to close or open to the outdoor space.

HM: You can fold it all the way or roll it around and subdivide the living/dining space. The living room can become open air, and the conditioned space is at the juncture of where the kitchen is. Or it can slide around in an L and enclose the living room, then the whole first floor is undivided and conditioned. For a big chunk of the year, you’re living in an almost Hawaiian living room. In these shoulder months, it’s really nice to be able to quickly change the arrangement of indoor and outdoor space. 




HM: There’s also a great roof deck that makes that second-floor bedroom space feel big. 

HM: I really have to brag on Aaron, because the thing I love best about this building is the folding form of the roof. There are some wonderful, extreme shapes to the space that make it feel airy and unique. It doesn’t feel like a box. For me, this little building is like a little origami space that can fold into so many different ways to use it. That ability to morph your space according to who you are and how you’re living is the key to such a small space.

AT: A couple of houses down, another alley unit went up about the same time, and there are garages and garden sheds back there. There’s one house that has a great playhouse in back. On the streets themselves, the houses are all prim and proper and behave themselves. But there’s more license in the back, and the scale is really fun. 

HM: There’s a real feel of freedom with the space that reads through in the architecture and the landscape. Where the cars pull in, we filled in with gravel to make a little court space. It’s pervious, very low maintenance, and allows that landscape space to breathe more. 

For us, the ADU solution has so much merit compared to what was happening before. People were buying bungalows and adding looming growths to them. It ruined the whole feel of the neighborhood with these alien creatures added onto the tops and around the houses. 

This building is discreet, and it strengthens the character of the neighborhood. 

Plans and Drawings

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.