A sturdy telescope stands tall on a tripod in the corner of Kerry and Angela Stein’s living room, a sign that rural life is full of sights: rainstorms are brewing in the distance, wildlife meander through fields of grass, and birds scurry enthroned in and out of a small pond or in the branches of sprawling trees.
The Steins lived in a mid-century ranch house on the west side of Houston, and a nostalgia for land made the couple look up into the hill country first and then settle on land closer to Houston, as Kerry Stein is not yet out of his job in the US had withdrawn oil and gas industry.
A native of San Antonio, Kerry, who grew up on his paternal grandfather’s farm in Castroville, knew that one day he would have his own land, even if farming wasn’t his profession.
Just a few years ago they moved into their modern, minimalist farmhouse, a simple mix of glass and steel, Lueders limestone, and cedar, poplar and pecan woods.
Located off a farm-to-market road in Washington Counties between Chappell Hill and Navasota, the low-auger ranch-style home is an odd sight after miles of farmhouses, trailers, and traditional timber-framed homes. Designed by San Antonio-based Lake Flato Architects, the “home” consists of a series of indoor and outdoor spaces that are certainly the most eye-catching barn in the area.
They’d never hired an architect or even built a house, but after seeing a few houses they liked and finding out that Lake Flato had designed both, they knew who their architects would be – even if they weren’t so The award-winning company knew a lot about that at the time.
This 256 acre lot is in a new small farm community known as Gates Ranch. Many of these are second homes for Houstoners who want to get out of the busy city on weekends or retire. The land was once owned by Amos Gates, a surveyor for Stephen F. Austin and part of the Old Three Hundred, the settlers who received land grants in Austin’s first colony in the 1820s.
In the spring, Steins Farm is filled with the purples, pinks, and yellows of wildflowers, including a small mound covered in bluebonnets. At other times, Stein works in hay fields with another farmer and trains his tractor well as he sells 1,500 pound hay bales to neighbors who raise cattle.
There’s a steady stream of birds, from a bald eagle that nests nearby and perches in their trees, to ducks, herons, cranes, pink spoonbills, and even white pelicans that plunge into their 14-foot-deep pond.
For a few years the Steins lived in New Orleans and their home was in a bird sanctuary, so they learned about the species that were around them. This unofficial hobby has grown to a new level.
“We’re bird watchers by default now,” Kerry quipped. “The birds were a big surprise. I didn’t expect to see a bald eagle out here. We have a pretty nice spotting scope and we watched the bald eagle every morning for a few months. He liked to sit in a certain place, and when he flew, all the ducks scattered. “
Laura Jensen and Gus Starkey, the project architect and designer of the Lake Flato project for the House of Steins, said the projects depend on the natural features of each site, so visiting the site started the process.
“Our roots are agricultural and industrial so this is kind of homecoming,” said Starkey. “The company is really rooted in finding the architecture in the landscape and blending the two together.”
“Our first reaction is always to the location, the appreciation of the land and trying to find out what is unique about the property. We wanted to find the right place to take advantage of the lake and anchor the house, and a few trees around that pond gave us enough time to get attached, ”continued Starkey.
Because the Steins’ 256 hectares felt wide open, the goal was to make the home feel that way too. The main part of the house has a master bedroom as well as an open plan living, dining and kitchen area and a large pantry / laundry room. A carport, then a Dogtrot building with two smaller bedroom suites, form an inner courtyard where the Steins have planted lush zoysia grass, so soft and thick it is hard to imagine it’s real grass.
In the distance is this striking barn, mostly covered in curled corten, which naturally ages to a rusty red color that you would expect from a traditional, painted barn. This is where Kerry, a geophysicist, keeps his tractor and his pride and joy: the 1985 Jeep CJ7, which he bought after graduating from Texas A&M University.
Large sliding panels open to let the natural breeze through, making it more convenient for Kerry, who enjoys working with wood, to spend hours in his lumber shop.
There’s a hayloft above, but it’s mainly used to store wood that Kerry uses in making cupboards or other furniture. And in the center of the barn, which is mounted in the ceiling joists and rafters, there is an unusual steel fixture.
The Steins watched HGTV’s “Salvage Dawgs,” which record the antics of the Black Dog Salvage team in Virginia as they remove architectural elements from older homes and other structures. On one show, they talked about an old carriage lift they’d taken from the historic Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia.
Vacationers came there more than 250 years ago to spend the summer in the cooler temperatures of the Allegheny Mountains, and their carts were stored in a warehouse that was lifted to a higher level by a manual elevator.
Kerry is now joking that he may have had a little too much wine that night, but he doesn’t regret calling Black Dog Salvage to buy the elevator and then asking his Lake Flato team to move a barn around it to design.
It’s a bit awkward to use – it requires a lot of manpower – so Kerry is working on a counterbalance system to make things a little easier for him on his own.
And the carport has a different function than protecting vehicles. They’re hard to see because of the pitch of the roof, but they’re covered with solar panels, which so far have provided all of the electricity the Steins’ house used.
“A cornerstone of our design perspective is sustainability in all forms and phases,” said Starkey. “We encourage as many customers as possible to include solar panels.”
At first glance, the house appears to have a roof that hovers over the structure, an illusion created by a series of clergy windows that enclose much of the house. Inside this upper level are exposed steel trusses that criss-cross the length of the house.
In the main house, Lueders limestone was used on the fireplace and on the kitchen walls. Smooth plates of it serve as counters in the pantry, kitchen and bathrooms.
Kerry bought wood from old freight cars and shaped it together to create a huge cutting board-style top for the large kitchen island. The other woods in the house include poplar in the closets, which Kerry made herself over the course of a year and worked on in the evenings and on weekends.
The pecan floors were from a huge tree that fell on Kerry’s grandfather’s farm. Every time he looks at her, he remembers the joys of being out on the farm.
There are four panes of glass at one end of the living room. One door that opens wide and the other three that fold in accordion style, making the living room and the covered outdoor terrace appear as one unit.
A lovely blue swimming pool is fun for their 19 nieces and nephews, and the Steins light their outdoor pizza oven when his large extended family visits. It takes about 90 minutes to get hot enough, but then it only takes 90 seconds to bake a cake.
A small orchard of olive trees is still ripening, but when they start producing fruit the couple either learn to salt them or find a press to extract their own olive oil.
Right now they appreciate the view from their living room, a perfect sunrise every day.