When Dianne Murata and Robb Bunge moved to Garden Oaks in 2004, the plan was to stay a while, then flip the house. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Heights: they fell in love. Not with each other—that had happened a few years earlier—but with the neighborhood and its residents.
A number of other young families moved in, creating a community for their two children, Akira, now 10, and Kirin, 8, to run around with on the tranquil streets. Their neighbors became more like family. And the abundance of mature trees surpassed what even most blocks in the Heights could offer. “We almost bought another house just a mile away,” says Murata, “but Robb said that I had to tell the neighbors we were moving, and I couldn’t do it.”
Still, Murata, who owns the boutique commercial and health care design firm Kimiko Designs, and Bunge, a new ventures manager for an oil and gas company, knew their two-bedroom ranch house wouldn’t work for their family forever. Instead of replacing it with a typical new-construction job that would fill out every corner of the lot—Murata calls them “muffin-top houses” for their overstuffed visual effect—they wanted something that would fit with their beloved street while incorporating their love of Asian contemporary design. After years of searching for the right architects for the job, they chose Seattle firm Suyama Peterson Deguchi, rented a home nearby, and bulldozed the old rancher.
Although the family’s new house, completed last March, is oriented in a modern L-shape, its stylistic cues and details are all rooted in the tenets of traditional Japanese design, from the cedar trim to the traditional shoji screen doors enclosing the office. Every room in the house has at least one window with a view of the surrounding green space, and there’s an expansive front porch—well, more of a minimalist concrete deck—where Murata can sit out in the evenings with a beer and greet the neighbors walking by.
Making plans for the new house, Murata decided she wanted to use a traditional treatment called shou sugi ban on the exterior siding. The process involves charring or burning untreated wood until the top layer cracks into a crocodile pattern, whereupon it is left to cool, swept off with a wet broom, and finished with a sealing oil. In use for hundreds of years in Japan, the process not only makes wood resistant to fire, rot and insects, but also imbues it with a rich, dark-brown color touched with a subtle iridescent sheen.
Murata found a mill in Austin that specialized in shou sugi ban, but when the price came in well above their budget, she studied up on YouTube and decided to treat the wood herself. Armed with a propane weed torch and an assembly line in her driveway—consisting of helpful family members, friends and members of the construction crew—Murata and company treated over a mile of cedar plank to cover the entire house.
“It was scary because we bought the wood from Seattle, and we didn’t have much room to wiggle—if it went south, it could have been costly. It was a gutsy thing to do on her part,” says Erin Stetzer of Stetzer Builders, which constructed the house.
On the interior, Murata and Bunge have accented the streamlined space with a few high-impact pieces. The entryway is crowned by a quartet of enormous, parasol-like, silk-wrapped red lanterns that the couple first saw at RA Sushi in Highland Village. “I had to save up my allowance for that one, but I’m obsessed with it,” says Murata with a laugh. The color scheme carries through to a pair of studded red Chinese doors that mark the entrance to the master bedroom; found in a local antique shop and originally part of a set of bifold doors, they’re estimated to be 200 years old. Murata removed the hinges and hung the two remaining panels on rails outside the master closet.
Enlivening the spare decor are objects that hold special meaning for the family: an origami crane mobile made by Murata’s uncle, an intricately woven Japanese wedding kimono hung over the open staircase and a cabinet at the second-floor landing built by her grandfather. Elsewhere, the furnishings lean toward the midcentury modern look, blending seamlessly with the home’s Asian-inspired clean lines.
At under 4,000 square feet, the house feels significantly larger, with airy spaces and every inch designed for maximum utility. Yet as the sun sets over Garden Oaks and the entry’s red lanterns begin to glow, the distinctive new home feels distinctly at home. “It was so important to us to respect the neighborhood,” says Murata. “We didn’t want something that would tower over the other houses, or sit so close to the lot line that we had a view through their windows. This house definitely stands out, but it still fits in.”