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Monday, March 17, 2014

Brown Design Featured in Best In American Living

Brown Design Studio’s projects were recently featured in the Winter 2014 edition of Best in American Living, a publication of the National Association of Home Builders ( The publication discusses the many different aspects associated with home building in the United States. Our work is featured in the article, “The Missing Middle,” which looks at the current home building trends and discusses the “forgotten group,” consisting of empty nesters and single-person households that don’t require a large living space. The two projects featured in the article were Habersham Village (, located in Beaufort, South Carolina and East Beach (, located in Norfolk, Virginia. These projects include small to large single-family units, multi-family units, and row houses catering to this group. Flexibility in the design of these units allows us to adapt to the area’s density by altering the buildings from a single-family unit to a multi-family unit. We have been refining this design approach over the past 16 years developing walkable neighborhoods and town centers. We would like to thank Daniel Parolek at Opticos Design Inc. for featuring us in “The Missing Middle” article.

Writing by Andrew Boughan,
Co-op Student at Brown Design Studio

Friday, February 21, 2014

Presbyterian Church Update

Great news! Since our last update on the Berean Presbyterian Church, we are seeing different aspects of the project starting to come to fruition. The roof has been completely stripped of all wood rot and the team has installed new wood boards and waterproof installation.

They’ve also added new canopies over the doors and replaced some of the wood trim that was in disrepair. The stairs and wheelchair ramp are finishing up and should be done within the week.

As the projects starts to come to a close, we should expect to see the new red metal roof installed, the final paint job of the exterior, and a complete landscaping of the site over the coming weeks.

Photos from Huss Construction
Writing by Andrew Boughan,
Co-op Student at Brown Design Studio

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Berean Presbyterian Church

A current project Brown Design Studio is working on, alongside the Beaufort Branch of the University of South Carolina, is the exterior renovation of the Berean Presbyterian Church. USC-B acquired the property in 1993 and has been using the space as an art studio for their students. The current goal of the project is to stabilize the building’s foundation, replace the roof and stairs, and remove all lead paint.
Located along Carteret Street in Beaufort SC, the Berean Presbyterian Church has long been a place of gathering for community members. The Berean Presbyterian Church, built in 1892, was the dream of some very prominent African-American figures who endeavored to introduce a new Presbyterian congregation in Beaufort. It operated up until the late 1920’s, when the majority of the congregation relocated to nearby churches. In 1931, the Beaufort Township Library purchased the property and transformed it an African-American library branch with a space reserved for community meetings. But by 1965, the branch was forced to close because of the desegregation of the South. A year later, the county purchased the property and the building underwent major renovations over the following years. In 1993, the Beaufort branch of the University of South Carolina began utilizing the space as art studios.
The pictures below show the work that’s being completed on the site and some of the improvements already made.

 Stabilizing the Foundation

 Working to Repair and Restore the Exterior Trim

The Removal of the Lead Paint (Top of Structure)

 Investigating Original Wood Shake Roof and Original Wood Board Substrate

Photos and Writing by Andrew Boughan
Co-op Student at Brown Design Studio

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An Afternoon at I'On

As a relative newcomer to the Charleston-Savannah area and a recent college graduate focusing on Traditional New Urbanism, seeing examples of TNU developments in the area was high on my priority list. I’d heard great things about I’On from friends and professors, so that was a must-see for me. As soon as I could come up with an excuse to drive up to Mt. Pleasant, I gave myself an afternoon and decided to see it for myself. 

I was not disappointed.

Though there are certain overlaps in its design strategies with most other New Urbanist communities, I’On is uniquely and unequivocally Charlestonian. The only other large-scale New Urbanist development I’ve been to is Celebration, Florida, which I’ve visited a few times with family. What I’ve found to make a great TNU development stand out can only be discovered when you get out of your car and walk it. Whereas in other developments, you won’t miss anything driving past at thirty-five miles per hour, an exceptional development leaves prizes scattered about for the pedestrian. One of the most enjoyable parts of meandering through an urban environment is to come upon a vista—a framing of a particular space or structure by other buildings or natural features. It’s hardly accidental, but is usually the result of intention on the part of the urban planners and architects. It is these vistas and the plethora of small, precise details that work together to separate the mundane experiences from the memorable. It’s just as wondrous at a distance and it is under close inspection.

I’On isn’t afraid of a few wrinkles in her dress. It’s not afraid of crooked streets creating sharp, triangular parks, usually overgrown with vegetation climbing up fences and an abundance of trees that help to add character to the built environment and provide for a unique experience walking down the street. I could have parachuted right into I’On blindfolded, had my blindfold removed, and been convinced I was standing somewhere in a historic area of Charleston as opposed to a development outside of it. The character of Charleston is perfectly captured. The houses are where they should be—closer to, engaging, and acting to frame the street. Just like an enormous puzzle, it’s not simply a “collection of many great houses”, but instead fits and functions together to produce a wonderful community.

I love that each corner of I’On feels unique. You don’t know what you’ll see around the next corner (and you can actually walk through it all, the size is not daunting). A street could end on-axis with an impressive house or a church. The terminus of a street is not an “accident.” Everything feels deliberate.

My favorite moment was looking through a canal framed on both sides by houses and trees. Just where the vanishing point of the perspective should be was a grand house with a temple front looking over a lake. There’s such a care in the way I’On was designed that makes the whole so enjoyable. It is architecture and urban planning working together, and the end product is something far greater than either of them could have achieved on their own.

Writing and Pictures by David Easterday,
Designer at Brown Design Studio

Monday, October 7, 2013

Charleston Needs a Prince

Charleston needs a Prince. 

His Royal Highness Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, received the Albert Simons Medal of Excellence on Wednesday, September 11th at the College of Charleston.  The Albert Simons Medal was established to mark the twentieth anniversary of the School of the Arts.  Albert Simons pioneered the teaching of art at the College of Charleston, and the medal honors individuals who have excelled in one or more of the areas in which Albert Simons himself excelled, including Civic Design, Architectural Design, Historic Preservation and Urban Planning.  

The Historic Preservation and Community Planning Program in the Department of Art History at the College of Charleston School of the Arts presented the award.  

HRH Prince Charles’ life passion has been the pursuit of sustainable local architecture, planning and agriculture.  He has written the book Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World as well as a book on sustainable agriculture, The Prince’s Speech: On the Future of Food.  He has delivered countless speeches over the years aimed at raising the bar in the fields of architecture and planning.  He also asks hard questions such as why the skyline of Paris remains generally regarded as beautiful while his beloved London (including St. Paul’s Cathedral) is assaulted by Modernist glass towers and contextless boxes.  HRH laments that while London was beautifully rebuilt following the Great Fire of 1666 (by Christopher Wren and others simply by following the basic patterns of English Traditional Design), the rebuilding efforts of the post-WW2 generation of architects failed London by breaking with the entire historic fabric of not just the City but also of the English culture.  

Charleston could use a Prince today: a patron who understands the importance of heritage and growth within context.  The motto of the City of Charleston is Aedes mores juraque curat (“She guards her buildings, customs and laws”). This is precisely what has not been happening for the most part in Charleston following World War 2, outside of preservation activity.  There is no Living Tradition of how to build sustainable Charleston architecture that, by definition, includes cultural and historic precedents.  That Living Tradition should include local materials and tradespeople as well as successfully integrate new technologies and method, hence it being called a “Living Tradition.”

The forthcoming Clemson Architectural Building is a prime example of the shortcomings within the design community.  This building offers little, if anything, in the way of referencing the traditions of Lowcountry Architectural Design, nor takes any precedence from the 343 years of Charleston architectural DNA.  It seems even ironic that a building to house the Historic Preservation Program would itself feature only accidental gestures that show a remote understanding of traditional design, which should be a core component of the preservation program, in its efforts to foster a living tradition of local design. 

Contrast the Clemson School of Architecture with the efforts of the American College of the Building Arts.  This program is a wonderful example of bringing forth a Living Tradition and has been influenced by HRH’s own Prince’s Foundation programs.  The local design community should take the time to educate themselves in the core concepts that ACBA is applying on a daily basis and also honor and celebrate the new generation of craftsmen it is producing.  

In addition to HRH Prince Charles’ books, below are some additional sources for further learning and applying contextual design and growth.  

The Old Way of Seeing: How Architecture Lost its Magic.  Jonathan Hale, Mariner Books, 1995. 

The Original Green: Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability.  Steve Mouzon, The New Urban Guild Foundation, 2010. 

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction.  Christopher Alexander, 1977. 

The Architecture of Community.  Leon Krier, Island Press, 2009. 

Image courtesy of T-Square Interns.  

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

USC Grace White House wins an award.

Brown Design Studio had the great honor of receiving an award last week from the Historic Beaufort Foundation.  The award was for the adaptive re-use of the Grace White House into a 17 student dorm for the University of South Carolina.  The award was noted for the special sensitive care taken in the preservation of the building's interiors.  

The Grace White House was originally built in the 1880's and received a very major renovation in the 1930's.  The house is located in Historic Beaufort South Carolina and was the home of Beaufort's first woman attorney.  The house is also interesting in that it has a full basement, something rare in the Lowcountry.  

The House was purchased by the University of South Carolina as an addition to the Historic Beaufort Campus with the goal of converting it to housing for Art Students.  The program called for 16 students along with a RA in a private apartment along with common space, kitchen, laundry, a route of access for ADA compliance and 21st century services.  

On the Exterior, the goals were modest with basic maintenance and replacement.  The building was stripped of its lead paint and repainted along with some basic trim replacement.  The major changes were the addition of a concealed chair lift in the rear and organized out door space, parking and services for the students.  

The interior was another story however with the building having complete original interiors including trim and full plaster walls and ceilings.  The building was completely re-wired, still having its 1930 eara wiring in tact along with adding in security, phone, University network access and wireless service. The entire HVAC system was replaced also with new high-effiencey units added.  Much of this re-wiring was completed by careful work by the tradesmen to minimize the demo or cutting of the existing plaster walls.  

Additionally, the full basement was converted over to a private RA apartment using most of the existing masonry and wood walls.  This lower level had been partially open to the outside but we have sealed it for much better energy savings and air quality.  

The building is a great example of adapting an existing building into a very different modern use while retaining all of the local historical character of the building.  These students receive the exact same level of care & service that any other student would get but they get to enjoy a large 12' wide porch also!  

Tucker Building Corporation completed the work and should receive praise for their efforts along with all the tradesmen who worked with care and purpose on this project.  The City of Beaufort should be commended for the recent Planning efforts to encourage this type of project and the growth of the Beaufort Campus with the Art Student Scholarships fund.  Historic Beaufort Foundation should also be thanked for presenting the award and helping to shape and encourage both preservation and positive change.  

Lastly, the University of South Carolina should receive high praise for the efforts here.  Chancellor Upshaw and her staff have shown great vision and leadership in the re-investment of the Historic Beaufort Campus.  That vision is clearly one that values promoting the wonderful uniqueness of the Historic Downtown part of BEaufort along with offering a 21st Century education.  One of the best things Beaufort could do for quality of life and economic development, is to grow the Historic Beaufort Campus.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Brown Design Studio, Eric S. Brown author.

Carolina Lowcountry Architecture: The Basis for a Distinct Architecture of the Lowcountry.

The Carolina Lowcountry is blessed with a rich history, natural beauty and a distinctive architectural character.  You know when you are here, we have live oaks, marshes, fresh shrimp and big porches.  Thats how most people would start to characterize the Lowcountry.  The architecture here didn’t just randomly happen, a distinctive architecture is the result of climatic characteristics, local materials and construction methods, and local cultural patterns.  

When you have a true distinctive architecture, it is tied very much to a place or region.  You can not for example, mistake the French Quarter of New Orleans for anywhere else in the world.  Importing architecture or promoting non-regional materials or patterns is one of the worst things you can do as it erodes the true nature of a place.  Other areas of the world share a hot and humid climate but they will typically have some differences in the cultural patterns or local materials.  One only has to look at the differences in Lowcountry architecture and the architecture of Spanish Florida, they share some traits but are distinctively different.  You will never confuse the core of St. Augustine with the core of Beaufort but you might confuse the uniformly bland sprawl of I-285 in Atlanta with the uniformly bland sprawl of Rt. 278.  

The Lowcounty is primarily made up of villages and towns but we are blessed with two of the greatest cities in North America, Charleston and Savannah.  Both of these are true urban cities and you will see the architectural character adapt as it also responses to the urban environment a little differently than it would in a rural setting.  So while a townhouse might be a little different than a rural river house, you will still see many of the same traits in them.  This is actually one of the hallmarks of a true distinct architecture, it transforms / adapts over the exact place it is put and it will adapt over time as well.  

Climatic Characteristics
In the Lowcountry, its is hot and humid here.   Our average summer temperature is high 80’s and 90’s with the humidity nearly the same.  Prior to the invention of mechanically cooled buildings, heat and air comfort was one of the greatest challenges a Lowcountry building would have to face.  The typical Lowcounty home has five design responses to deal the hot humid climate here; 1) a raised living level / foundation, 2) A single room depth, 3) Oriented toward breezes, 4) Porches, 5) High Ceilings and Windows.  

Raising the main living level up has many benefits and can be seen from simple rural cottages to urban buildings.  For a typical house, the raised pier foundation is typical and ranges from 32”up to a near full story.  This will provide cooling breezes under the main house which will help with clearing the heat of the day and also helping to capture the breezes a little off the ground.    Additionally, this will protect against flooding from storms and helps with insects, pests and dirt/dust.  Its important to remember that your windows & doors would be assumed to be open.  In a more urban setting, you will often see the lower level used for business or service uses which will mitigate the cooling but also provide additional security from the street. 

Getting air movement through each room, or cross ventilation, is a key concern and having a single room depth is the easiest way to do so.  Rooms vent best when they have openings on two sides or walls and having a single room depth lets you have venting options if the breeze shifts or a hallway door is shut.  Some houses will be a true single room depth such as a Charleston Single or others will be a more complex form of single rooms such as the Beaufort “T” house.  

Orientation to the prevailing breeze is an important consideration and works in conjunction with the single room depth to provide natural cooling and cross ventilation.  Generally, this simply means that the house is oriented for the breeze to hit the wide part of the form, whether its the tip of the Beaufort “T” or the long end of the Charleston single.  A unique lowcountry feature is that our buildings will rotate to capture the breeze regardless of how they sit on their lot.  This means a house who’s primary street is on the north side of the house will “face” the opposite way, although it may still have an entry on the north side.  The houses of the villages and towns will rotate at will while the urban grid of Savannah demands a little more conformity and Charleston is a mix of both, its street pattern bending to the breeze while the houses also will rotate.  

What is more Lowcountry than porches?  Well Southern might be a better term as most of the south uses porches as a climatic response tool.  Porches, in either single or double form, provide sunshade from the hot summer sun directly entering your home.  Indirect light still reflects into the interior but you are spared most of the heat gain.  The more open porches also typically will have a great breeze (especially the upper ones) and thus actually function best for outdoor living and sleeping in the evening hours.  This trait also combines with the Orientation trait as these porches must face either south or west to provide the shading benefit.  If you see a porched house sitting “sideways” to a great water view or frontage, then this is why.  

Once you have captured the breeze, you have to now make sure that it can be brought through the building.   High ceilings help with this by allowing higher windows and doors which allow a great opening area.  The higher ceilings will also allow the hottest air to rise up and keep sitting height a little cooler. The double hung window is also part of this conversation as it allows great ventilation of hotter air via the top sash while the lower sash lets in cooler air.  

Local Materials and Traditions: 
The Lowcountry is a region rich in natural beauty and natural resources but not much in terms of natural building materials.  Local materials define the core vocabulary for a distinctive architecture.  How the local craftsmen use them is another way.  

Traditionally, the Lowcountry has been a composed of the smaller scale villages and towns.  In these smaller, more loosely organized places, the dominate construction material has been wood.  Heart Pine and cypress form the backbone of local easy to find and use materials from the earliest times.  Both of these woods are tolerant to the humid climate here and the local craftsmen knew how frame it using there strength of the wood.  Thus most of the housing stock and much of the village main center will be wood frame and siding.  Many houses would have cypress or pine interiors with the level of refinement and detail based on the formality and cost of the home.  Douglass Fir or Brazilian Cherry are not local woods and thus not part of the local vocabulary. 

Tabby was a local material here that made use of the local sand and oyster shell to form a concrete like material used for foundations and walls.  Tabby was an imported cultural material from Spanish Florida but was then embraced and made part of the Lowcounty vocabulary.  Tabby is mostly forgotten now as concrete technology has moved on but this is an excellent example how a distinctive architecture evolves over time and incorporates nearby cultural influences.  

Brick is a great building material that makes use of local clay for its core.  Brick color will vary based upon the type of clay used it, a brick from Texas Hill County is a different color than a brick from Upstate South Carolina.  Brick was an imported material for a long time here in the Lowcounty with Plantations slowly developing a series of kilns for there own use and a later market in the cities of Charleston and Savannah.  Brick made from local clay is a Lowcounty material but it is typically used on larger buildings or in more urban areas (early firecodes required brick walls).  Plaster and Stucco were often used to finish some of the rather crude handmade bricks for either interior or exterior finishes.  

The Lowcounty does not have naturally occurring stone at all.  Stone is an imported material which is difficult to cut, store and ship so it was reserved for the most important civic buildings such as churches or town halls.  Some of the wealthy planters would import British stone for their personal homes but it a rare use.  In all cases, the building was formal so the stone work was well cut and dressed.  

Traditionally, the ports of the Lowcountry have served ships from all over the world.  This access to the world has allowed building materials to also flow here.  Charleston and Savannah have ballast stone/brick streets and both also feature imported mass produced iron and mill work in the Industrial Age, although Charleston did develop a great iron working tradition locally, all the iron was made in the northeast or England.  An interesting item to note here is the evolution of the Lowcounty style.  You will see a change in buildings as a certain style was in fashion, such as the Romantic styles of the late 19th century.  There are many homes that are built to core Lowcountry characteristics that will have Victorian mill work for example and many streets allow you to see the same type of house (say a Charleston single for example) that will bridge many decades and several styles.  A distinct architecture is not a style.  

The local traditions of construction also very much shape a distinct architecture.  Many parts of the the northeast have strong traditions in ship building and you will see that reflected in how early wood frame houses were framed.  Here we have a tradition of rural vernacular construction methods mixed with the more formal methods found mostly in the larger downtown cores.  That range defines that Lowcountry Vocabulary.  A porch may be a post and beam or it may be a more refined column and trimmed beam.  A distinctive architecture has a range to it, it is not a singular solution generally.  

Local Cultural Patterns:
Culture drives much of what we do, who we are and how we do things and that is very true for the Lowcountry.  The Lowcountry has a rich history of European people exploring and founding early settlements here dating back to the 16th century.  This European culture has given the area its primary pattern of settlement and its primary pattern of architecture, at least until the Machine Age.  With a few exceptions, the Lowcountry was founded by the British, Carolina being a Royal Colony.  This means that the building patterns and proportions were brought from England, Scotland, Bermuda and Barbados. 

These founding British core brought with them the design languages and patterns from Robert Adam, Vitruvius Britannia and other works.  These in turn owe their allegiance back to the early work of Vitruvius and his famous, Ten Books of Architecture.  All these patterns reference classical proportions that are derived from human and natural form.  Vitruvius and his much earlier greek predecessors, take their proportioning system from the Golden Mean or what is in all natural things and apply it to their architecture.  Thus, a classical column has the proportion of a human body and a classical window has the proportions of the human body also.  We humans tend to respond well to these proportions, we are wired that way and thus most people will enjoy well proportioned architecture. (even if they can not articulate why).  

These proportions and patterns are in the core of the Lowcountry architectural DNA.  They have evolved over time but the core human based proportions remained until the Machine Age which changed the proportioning systems to one of Industry not Man.  A horizontal Modernist  window from 1971 feels stale next to the grace of a double hung of 1848 and proportion is why.  

The Lowcounty is also unique in having multiple cultural influences on it.  As a distinctive architecture can and will evolve over time, you can see that effect of these cultural assimilations.  We have mentioned the effect the Spanish Floridian architecture had after the British has stormed St. Augustine in 1702.  Also note that traditional color of a porch ceiling, Haint Blue, a Gullah superstition about spirits. 

The Lowcountry is a special unique place in the world.  There are places that are similar to it, but none that match it in all aspects of what makes this a great or unique place.  The premise of this essay is that every place has a distinctive architecture to it (or should, sometimes they are lost) and the Lowcounty certainly has a distinctive architecture to it.  These distinctive characteristics become the DNA or vocabulary for that place.  These characteristics come from the triad of climatic characteristics, local materials and construction methods, and local cultural patterns.  The result is a set of architectural massing & forms (floor plans for the layman), materials and construction methods that make up the buildings that define the Lowcountry.  This distinctive architecture becomes, as defined by Steve Mouzon, a “Living Tradition” and will evolve and adapt over time and is not static.  

While the Lowcountry Architecture will evolve over time, it’s core DNA should be protected here.  You can not import another DNA, from say Tuscany Italy, for example and expect that to not look very fake or cartoon like.  Nor can you import a generic corporate architecture Atlanta and expect it to enhance the sense of place here.    Each time we bring in foreign DNA, we allow a piece of what is special here to be lost.  Each generic building brings us one step closer to a generic place and its a slow but steady march to get there and there are great easy alternatives that allow growth and allow each new building to contribute to the growth of the sense of what the Lowcounty is.  

All photos by the author.  

Partial Additional Reading List:

The Old Way of Seeing: How Architecture Lost its Magic.  Jonathan Hale, Mariner Books, 1995. 

The Original Green: Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability.  Steve Mouzon, The New Urban Guild Foundation, 2010. 

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction.  Christopher Alexander, 1977. 

The Architecture of Community.  Leon Krier, Island Press, 2009.