The 34-person Michael Hsu Office of Architecture sits on a busy stretch of Burnet Road, tucked away behind weathering steel and trees, camouflaged by the towering Technicolor dresser that sits atop Top Drawer Thrift. Before visiting to write this story, I had driven past it several times a week for years and never known it was there.
The firm moved to Burnet Road in 2012, after outgrowing a space that was little more than a glorified closet, windowless and grim, followed by an office above a restaurant on Guadalupe and 34th Street. At the time, Burnet was only just beginning to become the booming district it is today. When a real estate partner first approached him with the space, Hsu was skeptical about the location — a former wellness clinic. But his staff were starting to migrate away from downtown, closer to single family homes, so they took the leap. Now it feels like a natural fit. “It’d be awesome to be downtown, but once we understood costs and challenges and what we’d give up, it wasn’t an option for us,” he says.
The office is an adaptive reuse of a 1960s building. “There was nothing particularly special about it — it was economical and a blank slate to start working from,” Hsu says. But the space has been transformed into something modern and airy. A series of trusses define the ceiling, shortened but otherwise unchanged. Windows and art dot the walls, much of it from collaborators like Big Medium or staff members. Other pops of personality, like Hsu’s old Ducati motorcycle, enliven the space.
The floors are pecan and hickory, their boards different widths. The materials library, which is in the process of being digitized to make more space, features a table made of salvaged pine. All of the wood serves to warm up the crisp white walls.
The process of designing the office put the firm in an unfamiliar position — that of client. “As architects, we always debate, can we afford this? Is there a return?” Hsu says. “What non-monetary value does it add to our firm, our culture, and how we share our space with clients and collaborators?” Then, they had to take the project one step further, stretching every dollar instead of pushing to increase the budget. Off-the-shelf components and materials balance out a few big moments that serve to illustrate Hsu’s ethos. And in that way, the space was worth the investment, demonstrating to clients that the practice puts its money where its mouth is.
Much like the restaurants that Hsu is known for, the office feels stylish, with copious space to entertain as well as work. The space can be transformed to host social gatherings, like a movie night for employees’ children in the parking lot, which they cover with carpet tiles.
By creating a storyboard during the design process, the team thought about the different ways the space would be used, telling stories about sharing, collaboration, and meetings with craftspeople. Five years later, the office still tells these stories, a quiet hub at the center of Austin’s booming hospitality industry.
Alyssa Morris is web editor of Texas Architect.