Backstory: It's A Family Affair

Craig and Cavan McMahon design and build to suit themselves, creating demand for their innovative, practical, custom homes

House 610, in San Antonio’s Alamo Heights, was designed and built by Craig McMahon Architects. Craig’s brother Cavan McMahon, owner of Half Inch of Water Studios, did the detail work, including building the home’s steel and wood cabinetry, concrete countertops, and weathered steel fireplace (Photo: Dror Baldinger).

July 01, 2016

Craig and Cavan McMahon’s mother didn’t want her sons to go into the construction business. She hoped to spare them the toll the family’s concrete business took on loved ones’ bodies and souls, so she steered both sons toward artistic endeavors. Craig chose architecture and Cavan went to college for fine art photography and business.

Her plan was half successful. Both sons became artists, but they apply their artistic talents to building original homes in the Texas market.

Craig is an architect based in San Antonio who designs houses and commercial projects for clients and designs and builds a home for his family about every 18 to 24 months. But he doesn’t live in the houses for long before people come knocking at his door offering to buy them. He sells the homes, using the profit to fund the construction of his next experimental family home build. With his training in fine art and business, Cavan designs and builds “art houses” at a rate of about one every other year. But parting with them is hard, so he puts them into short-term rental pools for the vacation market in Fredericksburg and, more recently, in Port Aransas on the Gulf Coast.

Surf Betty, on the Texas Gulf Coast, was designed and built by Cavan McMahon of Half Inch of Water Studios. The home’s design allows for natural ventilation and the play of shadow and light (Photos: Craig McMahon). 

Herein may be the secret to building a spec home to sell or lease: Crafting beautifully designed houses that you’d be happy to live in yourself has a tendency to resonate with buyers on an emotional and practical level.

Craig left Texas to work at large-scale architectural firms in Chicago and Los Angeles, eventually returning to his home state to work at Lake | Flato Architects, where he learned something that often isn’t taught in architecture school: how to design homes that fit with place. “It took me a while to understand how to let the land inspire architecture,” Craig says. “I thought I was going to be fired every other month. They had to beat it into me. I was of the world that you move the mountain to put your house where you want it.”

The lesson may have been difficult to learn, but it has stuck. Craig started his own firm, Craig McMahon Architects, and began building houses with roots deep in the Texas Hill Country soil, inspired by the area’s German pioneers as well as by old Texas agricultural buildings. The result: a soft-edged contemporary industrial vibe. McMahon’s homes of wood, stone, and steel hug the hills and offer large expanses of glass protected from the sun by deep overhangs and thoughtful siting—he’s a stickler for siting to minimize the impact of heat and cold in the region’s sometimes-harsh environment.

For passive cooling, Craig designs for breezeways through the main rooms of his houses, angled to take advantage of prevailing breezes. Open-foam insulation seals the homes, essentially turning them into coolers and creating a bug barrier. His next home building experiment will involve building small homes that are both space- and energy-efficient. 

Though Cavan’s path to becoming a home builder was different, it also brought him back to the same spot as his brother. After college, Cavan returned to the family concrete business in Big Springs, Texas, until it was sold in 2003. Then he took his family off to live on a sailboat in the Caribbean, until a hurricane hit and he moved his family back to Texas.
Cavan’s business, Half Inch of Water Studios (taken from a line in a John Prine song), is based in Fredericksburg, Texas. His homes are handcrafted and experimental; they’re the work of an artist who uses homes as his medium. He makes a living by sharing them with others through the market for short-term rentals of unique homes in places people want to visit. Worth pursuing, say the brothers, are home shares such as VRBO and Airbnb that are attracting tourists who want to stay in a small, cool modern home in a distinctive place, Craig says.

“Location is key here. We spend more on lots and houses in specific areas where the demand for them is high.”

Cavan conceives of his homes as sculptures, evident in Surf Betty, a house he built in Port Aransas on the Gulf of Mexico. The house is a series of simple forms sited so the sun creates ever-changing patterns throughout the day. He builds complex forms for concrete, sometimes wetting the wood to bring out the grain so it will leave its imprint, creating the look of wood. Cavan builds all of the interior accents in his homes, too, often with materials left over from other jobsites. His photography hangs in Surf Betty. 

The brothers’ collaboration is so organic that they don’t really think much about it. Whenever a client is looking for something special for a home, especially in concrete or steel, Craig refers the client to Cavan, whose training and time in the family concrete business have given him a deep understanding of construction and skills that elevate his concrete creations in homes to art. As may be expected of brothers, Craig and Cavan help each other problem-solve while engaging in the kind of good-natured fraternal competition that raises the bar for them both.

Teresa Burney writes about business, home building, design, real estate, and development.

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