Official Website

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. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Robert Gibbs: The Future of Urban Retail Author, Urbanist, Educator and Retail Planner Robert Gibbs was recently a speaker for the 2012 CNU Beaufort Lecture Series. Robert gave a though presentation on the current state of the US commercial retail market and talk about the current and future trends. Robert began by discussing current national trends. He has input from his large retail clients, he works with companies like Wal-Mart, JC Penny, and Disney but also small mom and pop folks like Al the Deli owner. Gibbs stated that urban retail is on the rise in cities and towns for the first time since 1939. Most of the large retailers (Nationals) have embraced urban stores in the last 5-10 years. Those who have not, are doing so right now. It is the segment of the market that is growing and predicable. Nationals view suburban growth patterns as risky and unlikely to perform, states Gibbs. This certainly applies to parts of the County around 278 and Bluffton as well as the suburban Beaufort.
Further, these larger National tenants have changed the way they do business in urban areas. They have designed smaller stores and will except many different conditions (two story stores, limited parking etc.) in an urban area. They do this because their urban stores are more profitable per square foot than their suburban stores. Gibbs states that good walkable urbanism makes retail more profitable and thus the best retailers (who will pay the best rents) like urbanism and love town centers. Most interesting, Gibbs then went on to state that the best of the best retailers actually look to enter historic towns and cities. Why? Because it is almost always the best urbanism in an area and the historic status insures a high state of predicability. They are willing to follow historic district standards and rules, in fact, they like them. Now here is an insider secret as an architect who designs these buildings, they don’t always tell you that they like them.
Bob has worked on and consulted on King Street in Charleston since the 1980’s. Under Bob’s influence and with Mayor Reily’s strong leadership, King Street has risen to a top 5 U.S. shopping street. King Street has, in Gibb’s words, the perfect blend of tenants; nationals, regionals and locals. Everyone benefits from that blend along with the great urbanism. For Historic Beaufort, Bob recommended that the shopping experience be raised to more core items. He stated that tourists actually prefer to do much of their normal shopping while on vacation, everything from electronics to back to school clothing and that they will pay a little more to do so in a great environment. Robert is a trained Landscape architect and Urban Planner. As, such, he is a very observant person. A lot of what he talked about was from using that sense of observation in his Planning practice. In fact, he has what he calls the rules of retail. Bob know that 75% of all retail sales now occur after 5pm vs 30% in the 70’s. He also knows all the little things that a retailer (large or small) must get right in order to maximize sales per square foot. Many of the core ideas of Robert’s lecture came from his recent book, Principals of Urban Retail Planning and Development and his numerous publications in periodicals such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Please visits his website for more information. Additonally, those interetsted in learn the rules of retail can join Bob at Harvard University this summer for an Executive level Course. See for more information.
Look for the CNU Lecture series to continue to bring national expects to the greater Beaufort region with additional speakers later this summer and fall. Visit the CNU Beaufort facebook site for updates,

Friday, January 27, 2012

Chris Leinberger: Back to the Future the Option of Urbanism Author, Educator and Developer Christopher Leinberger was recently a speaker for the 2012 CNU Beaufort Lecture Series. Christopher is gave a wonderful presentation titled “Back to the Future” that gave an overview of the current state of the US real estate market and economic development outlook. Back to the Future talked about the idea of America’s Dream used to be based on agriculture or “40 acres and Mule” for most of its life. After World War II, the new version of the American Dream became based on the automobile or “See America in a Chevrolet”. This shifting dream became reality as we spent the next 50+ years building mostly auto-oriented development, leaving many of us auto dependant. Christopher noted that the average American family spent 25% of its gross income on transportation related costs in 2011. He asks the question “what if some of that spending was transferred back into the local economy as investment into real estate?, instead of sending it to Toyota”. By contrast, he noted that communities with a high level of walkable urbanism have a typical transportation spending of about 10% but also have corresponding land values 40-200% higher. Its easy to see the long term investment difference in the two life styles from just an economic standpoint, not to mention the 80% typical reduction in energy consumption that walkable urbanism also generates.
Christopher went on to discuss how the market has changed from the Baby Boom generation& “I Love Lucy” sub-urban expectations to the Millennials and their “Seinfeld” urban expectations. He notes that 14% of all households will have children in the next 20 years vs. 25% today and 50% in 1955. How should the real estate market be thinking in terms of building or developing in this market? Leinberger offers advice from his own 14 development projects, his answer is “the Market demand for walkable urbanism is high”. He sites the aging Boomers, the young Millennials and the rise of the Creative Class as drivers in the high demand for urban places and small town living. Auto-oriented real estate, he notes, is way overbuilt and has a declining market basis as well.
Leinberger then showed several examples of small cities and towns that had leveraged cultural and market challenges into great success stories. He noted that Beaufort was positioned well in many ways. “The Market wants the essence of what Beaufort is”. We should be careful not to alter or destroy that essence and that thought should be the main goal of the Beaufort Region moving forward into the new Experience based Economy.
Many of the core ideas of Christopher’s lecture came from his recent book, The Option of Urbanism: The New American Dream and his numerous publications in periodicals such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Please visits his website at for an overview of his writings and more information. Look for the CNU Lecture series to continue to bring national expects to Beaufort with retail expert Robert Gibbs in the spring.