In rural Texas, the picturesque Llano River winds slowly past a huddle of tiny cabins. Inside, a group of friends enjoy their time in the countryside, spotting wild animals and sipping margaritas in the sun. They’ve created their own slice of paradise amid the arid landscape of hill country, and the way they did it may surprise you.
When Fred Zipp retired as editor of the Austin-American Statesman newspaper in 2010, he was already on the lookout for a place in the country. Together with his wife, Jodi, and six of their friends, he had spent the previous ten years formulating a plan to jointly acquire a weekend property where they could enjoy their free time together.
It was a close-knit group of friends made up of four couples who had gotten to know each other over two decades. With their children now grown to adulthood, and with fewer demands on their time, the eight friends could finally consider the next step in their lives – and they embraced the opportunity to spend more quality time together.
So the four couples, three of whom lived in Austin, Texas, began to plan their escape from the city. First of all, they considered purchasing a fleet of retro Airstream trailers. However, the costs turned out to be prohibitively high.
Next, they thought about buying a plot of land on the coast of Texas. But unfortunately, the distance from Austin made it an impractical choice. Finally, they realized that they wanted a location within a 90-minute drive of the city, but in a rural location and close to water.
Fred, who led the search, also had environmental concerns. Having witnessed first-hand the chaos caused by Texas’ droughts during his time in the newsroom, he wanted to make sure the group chose a home that wouldn’t be a drain on the region’s already limited resources.
Then, in 2010, the group stumbled upon a plot of land near the Llano River while traveling to see another friend. Covering 10 acres near the town of Llano, Texas, the plot initially seemed like a mess. Indeed, the land was covered by invasive grass species and piles of rubble left behind after the previous owners had bulldozed a road.
Nevertheless, the group saw its potential, and by the following March they had bought the land. At first, they set their sights on creating a single large communal structure. However, they soon realized that they would need their own space, so separate dwellings would be a necessity.
The group needed an architect to make their dream a reality. The Zipps knew just the man for the job. So they called in local architect Matt Garcia, who had done work on their Austin home.
Coincidentally, the Zipps and their friends began their journey just as the “tiny house” movement was becoming popular. An experiment in small-scale, sustainable living, the movement sees people from various backgrounds taking a less-is-more approach to their homes.
Inspired by this, and by architect Ted Flato’s modern, modular designs, Garcia drew up some plans. “Basically we wanted a place where we could spend a ton of time together eating and drinking and hanging out, but still have privacy and separation when people needed to get away from the gang,” Jodi told the Outside Online website.
Garcia’s solution was simple. He designed four cabins measuring at 400 square feet, each designed to maximize the available space. Then, he added a 1,500-square-foot communal space where the friends could host get-togethers and accommodate guests.
Each cabin would come equipped with a queen-sized bed, bathroom and mini kitchen. The positioning of the buildings, meanwhile, would also ensure that all of the cabins enjoyed uninterrupted views of the river.
Meanwhile, the communal space was fitted out with everything the group would need for their longed-for get-togethers. A huge wooden table, an oversized refrigerator and a Wolf stove were installed to make catering for large groups a breeze.
Zipp’s environmental concerns were also taken into consideration. The cabins were designed with butterfly-shaped roofs in order to capture rainwater. Meanwhile, spray foam insulation and galvanized metal walls keep the properties cool in the summer, when temperatures can reach 100 °F.
The group loved the idea, so the project got the go-ahead. They jokingly dubbed it the “Llano Exit Strategy” in reference to their desire to escape the city rat race.
In time, the dust bowl outside Llano was transformed. Four cabins were erected against the backdrop of the hills, their metal exteriors complemented by rustic, wooden interiors. “It’s a high-design finish that doesn’t cost a lot of money,” Garcia told lifestyle website Garden and Gun.
Unsurprisingly, the project was picked up by the media and the “Llano Exit Strategy” went viral – often being dubbed “Bestie Row” in the press. “All the attention was a surprise but also an affirmation,” Zipp told Outside Online. “It made us realize how many people really love the idea of having a dedicated place where you can spend time with your friends as you get older.”
Although the design has been promoted by many as an alternative form of communal living, no one in the group lives in the cabins on a full-time basis. Instead, they split their time between their main homes and the compound, gathering there for special occasions such as Thanksgiving. The rest of the time, the complex is rented out to groups via services such as Airbnb.
Garcia, meanwhile, has fielded hundreds of calls from groups wanting to develop exit strategies of their own. So, as buyers seek affordable, sustainable alternatives to city living, we may well be seeing more communities like this one springing up.