People have a fascination with flying. Many often dream of soaring above the treetops and having a birds’ eye view of the world. The Wright brothers set the foundation for mainstream air travel. Frank Sinatra made flying an integral theme in several famous songs, including “Fly Me To The Moon” and “Come Fly With Me.” Myths are filled with creatures like the flying horse Pegasus and author J.K. Rowling lets her fictional witches and wizards fly with broomsticks, hippogriffs and thestrals. The idea of flying pervades all cultures, continents and times.
One stand-out residence in Austin, Texas, taps into this elemental dream and conjures the image and idea of flying. Soaring Wings is equipped with copper wings that allow the home to aesthetically fly above the vast Texas sky.
Coming To Copper
Frank Gehry designed many famous buildings, one of the most recognizable being the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, which features stainless steel panels. When architect Winn Wittman, AIA, of Winn Wittman Architecture, Austin, set out to build Soaring Wings, he garnered inspiration from Gehry’s technique to create a stunning home clad in copper.
Copper blended well with the topography of Austin and with the palette of materials Wittman planned to employ. “I knew I wanted to use Texas shellstone, which is a local material. It’s a beautiful stone; it has fossilized shells in it,” he says.
“Originally, the metal siding was to be vertical painted standing seam,” recalls Stan Smith, manager and head metal technician with Austin-based Pedernales Roofing, the installer on the project. “I pointed out that we would not be able to install standing seam on the wings of the building. The wing profile is a slice of a cone and there would be difficulty in providing an aesthetic finish. I brought up the idea of cladding the underside of the wings with a flat seam panel. Winn thought the idea was great and then wanted to bid the entire project with the flat seam. As an afterthought, I brought up the idea of changing the cladding from 24-gauge steel to 20-ounce copper.”
Stainless steel wasn’t an option for the house because local building restrictions prohibited the use of reflective material. Although copper starts out shiny, it weathers throughout time to a brown color and ultimately will patina to green, which happens naturally after about 20 years. “[Copper] seemed more appropriate for a residential project,” asserts Wittman. Approximately 900 panels, each about 1 1/2 by 3 feet, are installed on the home.
Copper presents several installation challenges. It shows fingerprints very easily and will look messy unless the installers wear gloves or protect the metal with some sort of film. Ultimately, however, fingerprinting and other blemishes will not be apparent because of the patina process; it all evens out.
“Realistically, there’s no way to protect copper,” says Wittman. “People sweat on it and lean up against it. It’s just going to look bad for a period of time; maybe for about six months until the aging process starts. I don’t recommend trying to accelerate that aging process with chemicals because it can cause more damage than just letting it age naturally. You just have to be patient with it and the owner has to be informed about this in advance.
“Copper is one of the lowest maintenance building materials I know of,” asserts Wittman. “Copper is very soft and easy to work with. But that softness is also a bit of a liability.” Texas is prone to large hail storms, which has caused some pinning on the home’s horizontal surfaces throughout the past three years.
Smith echoes Wittman’s thoughts about copper’s vulnerability. “Great care was taken to prevent stars (crimps from accidental folds) in the panels,” he says. “Copper oxidizes rather fast. During installation it was possible to track the progress by the different shades of copper. Copper installed five days prior was darker than the copper installed four days prior, which was darker than the third day. Eventually all the copper patinas to a bronze finish.”
Putting It Together
The flat seam panels were laid from left to right. The bottom of the panel is opened hemmed to the back side, and the top side of the panel is opened hemmed to the front side, explains Smith. Panels were hooked to a foundation cleat and then anchored with four clips. The next panel then was hooked to the side of the just installed panel, covering up the clips. This process was continued the entire length of the foundation. The bottom hem of the second row of panels then was hooked to the foundation panels and the process was completed around the entire length of the building again. Once all the panels were installed, the crew laid a padded board over the seams and struck it with a hammer to tighten the seams.
The panels are laid out in a step pattern. The copper panels were to be the same height as the rectangular windows; the panels had to be laid out so the windows were placed in a single row of the copper cladding. (Windows took the place of copper panels.) Because the panels were to be continued around three sides of the house, Smith and his crew folded the panels around a corner. “No corner trim was used to break the pattern,” he says. “We started on the southeast side of the home, wrapped the panel around the northeast corner of the home then folded the panel again on the northwest side of the house, completing the process until the final panels were installed on the southwest side.” All panels were folded onsite at a sheet metal shop set up at the home. Six men worked on the copper cladding. Installation took one year.
The extended wings that give the house its name are distinct against the expansive Texas sky. “The wings were an element to give the house some movement and make it dynamic looking. They also protect some of the windows from the harsh Texas sun,” explains Wittman. “I’ve always liked cantilevered roof structures and I’ve admired a lot of architects who have used them from Frank Lloyd Wright to the present day. This is just my twist on a cantilevered roof.”
The wings also made the installation tricky because the curvature changes throughout the structure. “The panels had to accommodate the curves to finish out evenly. It was tricky to plan it all,” recalls Wittman.
“We had to construct scaffolding from the ground up to the underside of the wings,” says Smith. “Due to the curvature of the soffit, we had different levels of scaffolding for the entire area and for the most part the scaffolding stopped 3 feet away from the soffit. Both wings were installed with the technicians lying on their backs.” Smith is pleased with the result. “The wings really showcase the copper flat seam,” he says.
The interior of Soaring Wings is just as impressive as its exterior. The home is divided into public and private wings, which are separated by a 2-story glass and steel bridge with stainless steel ceilings. The master suite occupies the entire lower level of the private wings and comprises a bedroom and sitting space, separate walk-in closets and the bath area.
A 3,200-pound granite bathtub carved from a single block of gray granite sits on a bed of Mexican beach pebbles, which come through the floor to ceiling glass from the Japanese rock garden. Because the house has a steel frame, the structure was strong in that area but an additional plate was installed for added strength. “We looked at a couple different ways of putting the tub in,” says Wittman. “We couldn’t use a crane because the house had already been framed, so we had to use a four-wheeled vehicle with forks, get it in position and then roll it into place. I suppose it was much like way the Egyptians rolled blocks of stone for the pyramids.”
Other interior features include a media room, wine cellar, 3-story elevator, more than 2,500 square feet of decks, more than 146 windows, a heated swimming pool and gourmet kitchen. Soaring Wings also boasts several sustainable attributes. Sustainable, domestic woods were used, including softwoods and vertical-grain fir. A room under the garage provides storage for rainwater collection. A specialized window film blocks 99 percent of UV light and 70 percent of sunlight and heat. Stainless steel mesh panels eventually will go over the windows in the stair tower and bridge to further reduce solar gain. Window shades are programmable via an astrological clock; shades automatically go up and down to cut out extra light. Cellulose insulation from recycled newspapers and structural insulated panels provide superior R-values.
Soaring Wings began as a spec home, but as construction proceeded, a couple who was relocating to Austin and was following the construction decided to purchase it. “The couple saw us building Soaring Wings, fell in love with the house and decided to move right in,” says Wittman. “I think my favorite part is seeing the satisfied client living in the home and enjoying it on a daily basis. It gives me the most satisfaction.”