Pete and Lyn Selig are on Cloud 9—the name the San Antonio entrepreneur and his wife gave to their Hill Country getaway, a three-building compound that celebrates the unspoiled beauty of their 675-acre spread. Cloud 9 has deep canyons that harbor an intriguing diversity of trees and also create drama. "Winds push up from the canyons," Pete says, "making for turbulence and lots of rain." Cedars, sometimes considered a nuisance in Texas, are ubiquitous. For Pete, who is the chair of the Texas Nature Conservancy, they are a , however. The trees' exfoliating bark is the nesting place for 16 breeding pairs of the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, a charismatic species that's the poster child for the fragility of the bird population. "They won't live in just any tree," notes Selig proudly.
Both the Seligs, the parents of an adult son, grew up in San Antonio and spent the summers of their respective youths in the hills of central Texas. Pete attended camp in the area, and his love of the place is rooted in happy boyhood memories of his up-close exposure to the land's glories. The wide-open house, designed by Ted Flato of Lake/Flato Architects, makes for about 3,000 square feet of combined indoor-outdoor living space that imbues all who visit with the sense that nature has exceeded itself, which is exactly what the architect had in mind. "The house Pete asked me to design," says Flato, "was just an excuse for him to be outdoors."
Pete Selig had been looking for land for a year and a half. After touring 40 ranches, he got a call from their real estate agent. "When she described this piece of property on the phone," says Pete, "I knew immediately it would be good." Lyn's reaction to the place was the same as her husband's. "I was astonished at the rough terrain and stunned by the views," she recalls. The couple wanted to conserve it all, so for starters, they established a conservation easement that will prevent future subdivision or roads. As for a house, they wanted something that would make the least negative impact on the surroundings.
If there is one firm that could accommodate Pete's desire for a house that sat lightly on the land, it is Lake/Flato Architects. The San Antonio practice, the winner of a prestigious annual AIA National Firm award, has deep ties to the vernacular backstory of Texas and famously strives to construct sustainable environments, with buildings meant to endure. Both the architect and his clients saw the new residence the same way: "I wanted the house to be like a camp," notes Pete. "I thought it was important that we had to walk outside to get to the bedrooms." Dividing a house into a series of smaller buildings is a favorite strategy of Lake/Flato. "When you have a compound," notes Flato, "the effect on the site isn't so overwhelming." Flato put on paper other must-haves for the stucco, glass and metal threesome of buildings: a 40-by-25-foot main living pavilion surrounded by a partly covered terrace, a two-bedroom bunkhouse, and a "boathouse" right on the lake.
To help fill their new spaces, the Seligs called in Elizabeth Ridenhower, a San Antonio designer who had worked for them in the past. In a decidedly un-decorator-like fashion, she pronounced that furniture wasn't what this house was about.
"Cloud 9 is about shape and space," she says. "I thought that furniture was secondary."
However, she did cull pieces from the couple's extensive collection of antiques to come up with an unorthodox mix of elegance finessed with the mundane. In the living room, rush-bottomed English chairs and their companion mahogany gateleg table (from Pete's grandmother) share space with galvanized-tin benches. Ridenhower also specified that other accoutrements, like the family sofas she slipcovered in white, had to be big and neutral.
Not that hands-on Pete Selig didn't have an eye for detail. "The doors are wood," he says, "but I wanted them to have a glimmer of metal to reflect what the roofs are made of. I got a bottle of silver flecks from the art supply store and mixed it with blue paint and hand-painted the door frames myself."
Behind the towering indoor fireplace is another one; it's outside and much simpler, but it's a favorite place to gather around after dinner. It anchors the arbor that connects the living/dining building to the bunkhouse. Like a see-through hallway, the rusted steel-frame arbor has a job to do. "The soon-to-be vine-covered allée locks the house into the site and organizes the barren hill. It's a quick way to landscape," notes Flato.
And the third building? "It's my favorite," confides the architect, speaking about the wood structure that is separated from its two fellow buildings by a winding track around a hill. "I really wanted to have a sleeping porch," says Pete Selig, who got that and more. He dubbed the resulting split-level Agua Casa, Spanish for "Water House."
A steeply pitched, galvanized-metal roof (the slope matches the ascent of the hill next to it) hovers over the 800-square-foot openair pavilion. As requested, on the ground level there is a sleeping porch, screened to keep out mosquitoes and other airborne nuisances. Below, a dining area makes alfresco meals a breeze. "It's a room that's completely integrated with the lake," notes Flato. "You can swim right out of the house."
The deceptively utilitarian pavilion revels in its transparency, opening up to the spectacle of the lake, clouds on high and raptors surfing the wind currents. But that's the name of the game around here. Materials are nonchalant, such as the screens on the sleeping porch, which constitute a subtle scrim between nappers and the harsh afternoon light. Sofas are covered in practical but attractive Sunbrella outdoor fabrics.
"When friends come to visit, they always start wandering off, to swim, to read someplace or to nap," Pete says. "We tell them to be back for lunch. So it really is like being at camp." That's a nice day for a child. But for an adult, it's the kind of day you dream about.