Annual conference stresses we embrace green future

We were looking at a collection of elegant buildings, nearly all of them white on the exterior but some with exposed concrete. Unique, askew roof planes sloped upward, shading large expanses of glass carefully designed and located to direct the views out.

Inside, modern minimal spaces made warm and comfortable with textures and colors opened out to courtyards and splendid landscaped settings.

We architects, and our advocates, were watching a slide presentation, a sampling of contemporary buildings spanning 40 years. They were designed and built by the architectural practice of architect Carl Abbott — a longtime resident of Sarasota and member of the Sarasota School of Architecture (“Architect About Town,” June 2008).

As architects, we always look forward to the annual AIA (American Institute of Architects) chapter design conference and award ceremony to meet with our professional peers from all over Southwest Florida and catch up over cocktails and dinner.

A prominent keynote speaker from a different city or state is invited to share his or her experience and expertise, and an outside jury critiques buildings designed by members of the local chapter. Our talent is distinguished with awards and honors for their accomplishments.

During the day, relevant classes are offered to keep architects current on codes, technology and green building principles. Like most licensed professionals in Florida, education courses are required by the state to maintain a professional standing.

Among the classes offered, we got an update from the Regional Planning Commission, learned about the impact of lighting advances on our buildings and the environment and how important it is to plan early if a building is to be a green, environmentally friendly structure.
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Jaime Correa, of the University of Miami, presented a more theoretical course. With the rising cost and looming scarcity of fossil fuel, it is necessary to rethink our communities. Circumstance is forcing us to consider “localization” not “globalization.”

He speculated communities will return to a society much like traditional settlements of the 18th and 19th centuries — smaller but more populated communities, self-sufficient and resourceful. The local production of food and clean energy is vital and it all, literally, happens in the backyard — if not on the roofs and walls of buildings.

Architects should embrace the imminent change. Designs need to function and be visually pleasing to neighbors living in close proximity. Solar, wind and biomass energy (biomass means “natural material” and when burned, releases heat that can be captured and used) is not the future, but now. Why shouldn’t water reclamation such as rainwater cisterns and wind turbines be attractive?

Correa presented examples of energy-producing public art, wind and solar, in the United Kingdom and China.

Known in the industry as “Solar Dell” — Dell Jones, of Regenesis Power LLC — shared his expertise in solar technology. Did you know that solar collectors have been with us since the turn of the century? The same principle is used today to draw on the energy of the sun to heat water. Solar electric panels or photovoltaic energy, however, is a more recent innovation that converts the sun’s energy to electricity, with the potential to power an entire home or building.

And, if more energy is collected than a building can use, the excess energy can be sent back to the power company. As of last year it is possible to connect into the FPL electrical grid, and sell back the excess electricity.

OK, they don’t give you money but you can be paid in kilowatts — when your electricity goes back in to the grid, the meter goes backward, offsetting the cost of the energy taken from the grid.

Alternatively, with a battery system, the excess electricity can be stored, ready to be used when the panels are not producing energy, ie, when there is no sun.

Progress in solar technology is exploding. It is possible to install walls of glass with a thin-film photovoltaic coating that can collect sunlight and produce energy. Research is concentrating on laminating this photovoltaic film to a variety of rigid or flexible building materials — roofing membranes and shingles are already available. These products, used in Europe, are ready to be used here, too.

Envision how the integration of these new products will change the way we build and design in South Florida with its abundance of sunshine. As fuel prices increase, why not start in the Sunshine State? New buildings in this area can be on the cutting edge of solar integration. And state and federal tax credits available for residential and commercial projects may just be the catalyst to jump-start the trend.

Dell does advise, however, that using solar panels to heat water is still the most effective method to incorporate solar into a building. It has been around awhile, and is an inexpensive and effective method to use the sun’s energy.

In a whirlwind day full of information and ideas about the future and new directions in building, it all boiled down to an opportunity to think about how Southwest Florida can lead the way to making Florida a green and energy-conscious state.

A little bit of home in Singapore

This past month, I had the opportunity to visit Southeast Asia. It was a trip I won’t soon forget. On the flight home, wedged into seat 47H on Delta Flight 7851, I considered how different this area is from my comfortable hometown: the people, the food, the culture. But the climate would be familiar to anyone from this part of Florida: hot, humid and green.

Architects in both countries face the same difficulties and, interestingly, although some solutions there may appear unique, many are familiar to anyone building for the climate challenges here.

Exceptionally privileged to be “on assignment” in Singapore, I took the opportunity to visit two high-rises designed by the architect most familiar with the challenges of designing for a tropical climate: Paul Rudolph, who spent his formative years in Southwest Florida, learning his profession.

In my last article, I mentioned the two remaining Rudolph houses in Lee County and how in Florida, he experimented with innovative construction methods of the early 1950s and explored fresh, modern architectural concepts of space, light and a response to climate.

Paul Rudolph’s early work in South Florida was prolific — mostly in Sarasota, some in Miami. He designed houses and public buildings; offices, schools and churches.

These projects were regularly highlighted in the national press.

It was that attention that earned Rudolph the invitation to become dean of the School of Architecture at Yale University and open an office in New York City, where he practiced from 1965 until his death in 1997.

The buildings I visited have only recently been recognized as modern icons and two of his finest projects. Both are in central Singapore City: The Colonnade, a residential high-rise (built in 1980) and The Concourse (started shortly afterward, in 1981), a mixed-use development with a 41-story office tower, a residential hotel and shopping mall.

What struck me about these buildings was the blatant use of ideas developed in Rudolph’s early projects in Florida.

His familiarity with design in the tropics was apparent, and the outcome was a considered response to shade, ventilation and protection from the rain. But here, Rudolph translated the lessons learned on small buildings into large structures that functioned on an urban scale. And nearly 30 years later, they are vibrant and working astonishingly well.

Of the two buildings, The Colonnade most successfully typified the early principles of Rudolph’s work. Immaculate after 28 years, the apartments, available only for lease, are spacious and luxurious. It is a revolutionary building. The units are not traditional one-story apartments. Instead, a high percentage of the 90-plus units are double height units with living and dining rooms ceilings 30 feet high and tall sliding glass doors opening onto deep terraces.

Rudolph used an exposed structural framework of round concrete columns, giving the 24-story apartment block its name. One-story “boxes” are inserted between the columns, creating intimate bedrooms and outside, blocks that protrude out beyond the columns. They appear to float and deliberately protect the largely glazed living and dining spaces and terraces of the unit below.

On the exterior, this creates a solid/void effect much like a wooden “Jenga” tower about to topple (have you played this game?)

Rudolph’s obsession with complex space creates intricate voids between the boxes and terraces, allowing natural light and ventilation to freely filter through the interiors.

The views of the lush landscape are spectacular.

It is easy to recognize the original ideas and details of shading and ventilation Rudolph used in the design of the Walker Guest House on Sanibel Island 25 years before. However, Rudolph’s Asian masterpiece is a much more complex structure, able to be appreciated by the most demanding architectural critics. Its popular appeal can be found in its simplicity, like the beach house on Sanibel.

This simplicity creates an inherent livability that makes it one of the most highly sought addresses in Singapore.

And although his boldest projects were built far from Florida, and often outside the United States, we can be proud that his roots are here. How fortunate we are to have the architecture of this region influenced by one of the greatest modern designers of the second half of the last century.

Blueprints reveal rare surviving structure

“We live in a Twitchell-Rudolph home. We discovered this fact when we found the deteriorated blueprints in the shed. Whether we own it or it owns us, we have yet to decide. The house has many of the features you mentioned: clerestory and large picture windows, wide overhangs and no load-bearing internal walls. Bringing it back to livable conditions has been a labor of

love or lunacy … depending on one’s point of view. The house never lets one forget where you live. It is always filled with light and the green of the trees.”

 

 

So wrote Maggie Stevens, owner of what may be the only surviving house in Fort Myers designed by the internationally respected architecture team of Ralph Twitchell and Paul Rudolph.

 

Subsequent to my last article, my inbox overflowed with letters from owners of mid-century houses similarly passionate about their homes and eager to learn more about the Sarasota School — our very own regionally inspired American modernism.

 

Many asked, “How can these buildings look so much more modern than what we see built today?”

 

Between 1946-52, Twitchell Rudolph Architects became the most successful partnership of the mid-century Sarasota School movement. And later, on his own, Rudolph’s innovative solo designs influenced the appearance and function of buildings in South Florida,  eventually altering the course of modern architecture in the United States and abroad.

 

In the 1920s and ’30s, avant-garde architecture was greatly influenced by the “Bauhaus School,” the German school internationally celebrated for its approach to modern design — not just architecture, but in the areas of arts and crafts, interiors, graphics and industrial design as well.

 

Also known as the International Style, the original designs of the Bauhaus rejected ornamentation, combined function with aesthetics and promoted the concept that mass-produced items could be used to express artistic freedom. While studying under the founder of the Bauhaus — architect Walter Gropius — Rudolph was introduced to those principles, which guided him throughout his career.

 

While other notable architects like Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were busy building glass boxes in the manner of the Bauhaus teachings, Twitchell and Rudolph became leaders amongst the designers of the Sarasota School.

 

In South Florida, architects were reinterpreting modernist principles to suit a subtropical climate, creating an unconventional approach to shelter suitable to a hot and wet climate. Their buildings were raised off the ground to keep the air beneath cool, had low, broad overhangs to create shade and used large openings to maintain natural breezes.

 

Sound familiar? The designs incorporated courtyards and vegetation for privacy, ventilation and shade. While these options were similar in character to Florida Cracker and Spanish Revival styles, the buildings were fresh and original, taking advantage of new materials and technology.

 

When the partnership dissolved in the early 1950s, Rudolph’s designs continued to evolve and interpret Florida regional architecture. He experimented with novel ideas of space and new construction methods. The resulting structures rejected load-bearing walls of traditional buildings and replaced them with straightforward structures of thin steel or wood columns.

 

Incorporating large expanses of glass, Rudolph created buildings with a remarkable lightness and open, functional floor plans. These buildings took many shapes but were often characterized by horizontal forms with flat or low sloping roofs. They were rarely symmetrical. Not unlike Florida Cracker buildings, they were not really a style but an instinctive response to the climate, location and a new way of modern living.

 

Using louvers and screens in large openings to maintain natural ventilation, Rudolph explored volumes of space inside the building and extended inside space out to blend with the natural surroundings.

 

Like many of his Florida buildings, our local Rudolph example, owned by Stevens and her husband, Steve Funnel, was built with local materials — often, conventional items found on the shelf of the local hardware store.

 

Now, as they lovingly restore their historical jewel, they look to other well-documented Rudolph houses of this period, relearning methods originally employed to create these unadorned, airy, open places. Mr. and Mrs. D. K. O’Mahony, who commissioned the architect in 1953, would have been proud to see their house so well cared for today.

 

The Walker Guest House on Sanibel Island, affectionately know as the Cannonball House, is the only other known Rudolph structure that remains in Lee County. In this tiny beach cottage, Rudolph perfected all the principles of space and construction explored during the years that he worked with Twitchell. It’s a simple, elegant reinterpretation of primitive structure

meeting modern lifestyle.

 

Examples of Rudolph’s early work were once abundant in Sarasota and South Florida. Today only a few have survived the trend to demolish smaller mid-century homes to make way for larger McMansions. It is believed that at least two or three other undocumented Rudolph houses once existed in Fort Myers but unfortunately, have been demolished.

 

Thankfully, those that still stand are in the hands of devoted owners that appreciate their historic significance. And from what I can tell, these important homes of the mid-century are not going to be put on the market as “tear-downs” anytime soon.

Sarasota School teaches lesson of fine modern architecture

Recently out for a drive in my red VW bug, admiring the variety of architectural styles in the older neighborhoods off McGregor Boulevard in Fort Myers, I was disheartened to see an older home, from the 1950s, bulldozed to make way for an oversized house that randomly borrowed aspects of many different architectural styles, none regional.

This house could have been built anywhere in the United States.

In many parts of the country, houses and buildings from the mid-20th century are enjoying a renaissance.

Did you know the west coast of South Florida is the birthplace of some of the finest examples of mid-century modern houses in the world? That this area was once the center of an art and architectural movement, internationally known as the “Sarasota School”? And would you believe this movement, with its revolutionary use of new technology and new materials, altered the way we live today?

Following World War II, when suburban neighborhoods gained momentum, the prominent house type became the ranch style with all its variations. These ranch houses are easy to spot in our area.

The particular one I see on my drive is a simple earth-hugging California ranch house. First built during the 1930s, the ranch took its inspiration from single-story Spanish ranches built at the turn of the century by the early Mexicans who had settled in California. This version was new and modern.

The particular house I’m looking at was built in the early 1950s, when this style was at the height of its popularity.

Built with low sloping roofs, deep eaves and large picture windows, the ranch appears horizontal, long and narrow. It has a slightly rambling layout – open kitchens and living rooms with sliding doors to a private backyard and an outdoor patio.

The ranch reflected a new suburban lifestyle. It was perfectly suited for the trend toward casual entertaining.

Progressing from the ranch is the simple but elegant mid-century modern: a term used to define developments in furniture and product design as well as architecture and interior design from 1945-65. In architecture, mid-century modern buildings evolved parallel to the developments in technology, notably steel and glass.

Architecture of the Sarasota School refers to mid-century modern buildings designed specifically for this area and its sub-tropical climate: buildings that respond to this climate, use local materials and borrow ideas from the original local regional architecture. Remember those discussed in past articles – except they are modern, i.e., new and novel.

Low and long like the ranch, this architecture became even more open and less formal.

I nearly drive into the water when I spot an exceptional example of the Sarasota School located directly on the river. This house uses “post and beam” construction, which supports the structure by means of vertical posts holding up horizontal beams, instead of load-bearing masonry, where the wall bears the weight.

Post and beam construction – a new option thanks to advances in steel manufacturing, which allowed for longer beams – permitted external walls to be made of glass for the first time. Peering inside, that’s exactly what I saw at the back of the house overlooking the river.

I could also see that the house had an open floor plan, creating the illusion that the space inside and outside the house was nearly the same. The arrangement allowed for uninterrupted views all the way from downtown to the Midpoint Bridge.

The house is bright and welcoming. Tall, extensive sliding doors let natural breezes ventilate and cool the interiors and allow the family who live there and their guests to easily enjoy an indoor/outdoor lifestyle.

The low sloping roofs on this house extend well out beyond the walls to shade these openings as well as the high clerestory windows nestled just below the roofline at the top of the walls. Daylight is abundant, but direct sunlight is not.

More than 50 years later, this house still manages to look incredibly modern.

As I drive away, I realize my description is nowhere near complete. In fact, I have only scratched the surface of the Sarasota School and how this style progressed and adapted to our cultural and climate. In the coming months I will take a more in-depth look at these buildings and their worldwide influence.

But next time you go out for a drive, look carefully at the buildings you pass and see how many have been influenced by this style. The great thing about Southwest Florida is that you don’t have to go far to find existing and influential architecture of the 20th century. Sometimes, you’ll even find it on the street where you live.

Learn from Styles of the Past

 

In my April column, I highlighted the city of Sanibel’s design codes. I mentioned how size could negatively impact the character of a neighborhood. I noted that as architects we are trained to build appropriately for the environment, but I’d like to explain because it is more than size that makes a building suitable for its location.

In another column, I touched on how municipalities write “standards” to help communities create and control their identity through architecture.

These design standards offer suggestions for materials, colors, heights and other architectural elements. But the standards do not always address another important consideration: Is the building appropriate for its location?

What do I mean by appropriate?

An appropriate structure should be styled in such a way that contributes rather than detracts from the overall aesthetic of the surrounding neighborhood. This includes size and mass, as well as styling or cosmetics. In addition, the building should be functional for the climate. In South Florida, this means we must address our subtropical climate.

Whether an office, a shopping center, a fire station, a custom home or developer home, an appropriate structure meets the needs of the user and responds to its environment.

An architect is trained to interpret the user’s needs and integrate these into an appropriate building that can be functional, now and in the future. However, the site and location require analysis and the built and natural characteristics considered: vegetation, views, the direction of the winds, the position of the sun combined with an appreciation of the adjacent structures.

“Appropriate” is to create harmony within the built and un-built environment. That’s the goal.

These days, designers often pick a few architectural elements from a “design standards” list created by their town or city. Interestingly, it’s rarely explained why these elements have been put on the list or how to choose them. It is essential to gain an understanding and appreciation of the historical function of these architectural elements, so we can be better informed about how to choose them.

So far in this column, I have looked backward to Florida Cracker and the early Spanish Revival architecture to understand how in their original form, they are suitable for Florida’s harsh climate.

Although contrasting in style, both are functional, providing shelter and shade from the searing Southwest Florida sun. They have different elements: porticoes, courtyards, shady porches, high sloping roofs and other aspects that contributed to survival in a hot and humid climate before air conditioning.

The architectural elements of these older buildings had a function, a purpose – they addressed the climate. However, with the invention of the air conditioner, it became less important to consider or imitate the practical elements of these early buildings.

By looking backward as we move forward, we gain a better understanding of early buildings in our region. Why is it that our wise ancestors were able to build so many beautiful structures that function so well in the harsh Florida climate?

And, if we build appropriately for the climate we live in, we will reduce our consumption of energy. And, what better time to incorporate efficient and energy-conscious building practices than when global warming is at the forefront of political and personal agendas?

If we only pick and choose architectural pieces from a list or a catalogue and apply them to a building, it becomes mere appliqué, and we lose the purpose of the building element that was so important in the first place.

Look at how architectural ornamentation is used sometimes today: arches, towers, terra cotta. Do they provide shade and promote ventilation?

The result is concrete boxes with architectural elements randomly applied and frustrated occupants with very expensive cooling bills!

Once we understand and appreciate their original functions again, we will be able to integrate architectural elements that will serve the purpose for which they were intended. All buildings that incorporate these practices, no matter what style they are, will be more appropriate, if the function of the architectural elements is honest.

I am not suggesting that we must replicate precisely the styles of the past, but learn from them. Designing a building can be a complex problem. We don’t need to add to that complexity by imposing a particular style.

Instinctively, then, the result will be a style appropriate for its specific location. Buildings will be functional, aesthetic and diverse. Southwest Florida deserves an architectural identity that is as unique and beautiful as our slice of paradise.

Prudent designs enhance an area

 

“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is one of the most well-known phrases in the Declaration of Independence. Its origins lie in the concept of “life, liberty, and estate (or property)” expressed by John Locke, the English philosopher, in the late 1600s.

Recently, I spent the day as architectural expert witness at a hearing of the Sanibel Planning Committee. Cody Vaughn-Birch, land use attorney with Henderson Franklin, and I represented a group of residents from the neighborhood of Chateaux Sur Mer who united to prevent a homeowner from building too excessively in their quaint and established neighborhood.

The goal was to convey to the Planning Committee that the Sanibel Code Development Standards give the city the facility to prevent the construction of super-sized homes, referred to by some as Hummer Homes or McMansions — or, at least in this instance, in an established neighborhood amid smaller homes which would be adversely affected by an inappropriately large house.

My role as expert witness raised the issue of John Locke’s proposal. Do property owners have the right to build whatever they want on their property within the maximum size limitations established by local governments? Or, does the community have a role in influencing the size and character of a house on someone else’s property?

As an architect, I have been trained to understand that we have a responsibility to build appropriately for the environment. Based on that knowledge, it is clear why the community needed to exercise its responsibility regarding compliance with the city’s codes (Section 86.43, Appearance of structures; size and mass of structures).

Regardless of my design convictions, the issue was about scale and mass. The proposed design dwarfed the surrounding homes. Still, it is difficult to tell someone that his or her dream home simply didn’t fit in the neighborhood.

The Sanibel Code implies a developer or homeowner has a responsibility to add to and not distract from a harmonious and established neighborhood. The code also uses terms like “general atmosphere and character” to establish visual guidelines for new developments.

With money comes the opportunity to purchase extraordinary sites. The temptation is to build big and maximize the allowable footprint on the site. Perhaps it is time for a rethink and instead consider appropriate — not big.

Appropriate design will address the client’s needs together with the specifics of the location.

Frank Lloyd Wright, the distinguished American architect, noted in his autobiography, “I knew well that no house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.”

A piece of property is more than a platform for construction. A house and the property should become one and if a building is integrated with the land instead of sitting on top, it will address and exploit the beauty of its location.

Qualified architects are uniquely skilled to create this balance. Experience and education allows an architect to understand how to design buildings tailored to the client and the site as well as complement the surrounding neighborhood.

Employing strategies like minimizing neighbors sight lines but maximizing the natural features, whether it be ocean views or retaining existing vegetation or topography, will enhance a building’s appearance and its function. Very few appreciate this holistic approach that architects are capable of exercising.

Buildings that satisfy the three criteria — the client’s needs, the land and the community — will also create real value, both monetary and aesthetic.

It was not the intent to limit any individual’s happiness. However, by raising expectations and standards, and, designing appropriately for the environment instead of overbuilding — we do not limit the individual’s rights or the right to pursue happiness.

Employing a skillful designer who can offer the client a solution that is in tune with the needs of the individual, the location and the surroundings will collectively benefit the community and the building owner.

We should expect nothing less.

Architecture styles often blend, merge

I think it is important to look at architectural styles today. What is being built? Are the buildings appropriate for how we live and work in Southwest Florida? Are buildings today as well-suited to the sub-tropical climate as the early architecture built purely for function?

Last fall, I was asked to give a talk at a local community development department with Amy Nowacki, who was then president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) — the national professional organization of architects. We had been asked to talk about the definitions of architectural terminology: What is a portico? What is a cupola? Arches? Loggias?

It was requested we give definitions from an architect’s perspective.

Most local community development departments these days are writing “design standards” — guidelines to help communities create an identity through their architecture. In theory, guidelines encourage better building aesthetics by suggesting alternatives to metal buildings or big concrete boxes, and the addition of architectural elements — details that add interest and break up large expanses of blank walls.

Design standards will usually outline heights, lengths, materials, colors and architectural elements. Some are obligatory; others must be chosen from a list — say two or three elements from a list of 15.

Often the standards provide rules that steer new developments toward a certain style In South Florida, the design standards often advocate architectural components from Mediterranean style architecture, so it seemed like a good style to use as an example.

What is Mediterranean architecture? It seems that all stucco and terra cotta roof buildings are classified as Mediterranean these days. But is the architecture here what they build now, or ever built in the Mediterranean?

To be frank, no. I’ve been to the countries along the Mediterranean and I can assure you they are not building “Mediterranean architecture.” Rather, what is found all over the southern United States is a diluted evolution of Spanish Colonial and Mediterranean Revival styles.

Spanish Colonial Revival uses elements from the early architecture of mainland Spain, Mexico and the countries of South America. Although there is some Moorish (i.e., Arab) influence from the 12th century it is nearly entirely influenced by the Spanish style from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Mediterranean Revival is more eclectic. Still true in form to traditional Spanish buildings, Mediterranean also incorporates references from places like Rome, Florence and Venice. The differences can be identified in the ornamentation or in the decorative craftsmanship: the cast stone moldings; the wrought ironwork used for window grilles, railings, gates and trims; and the touches of terra cotta details.

Since the construction of the first Spanish Colonial style buildings on Florida’s east coast in the late 19th century, revival styles have been used in the design of commercial buildings, hotels and houses. Thick masonry walls and stucco exteriors, low-pitched terra cotta tiled roofs, arches and small porches are are all characteristic of this style. So are loggias, open courtyards and tall double hung windows protected with canvas awnings or unprotected smaller decorative windows on outside walls.

However, these elements were not just randomly appropriated. Originally, each architectural element was chosen to minimize heat gain and promote cooling. Courtyards allowed the buildings to be turned inward — they could be opened up internally and easily ventilated.

Loggias and porticoes — corridors created by a set of arches or columns, open to the outside — allowed windows to be deeply set and shaded. The roofs were a combination of low-pitched hipped, gabled or shed roofs mixed with areas of flat roof. Little or no overhanging eaves left openings on the exterior unprotected, so canvas awnings or small sloping roofs over doors and entrances kept the rain and sun out.

Genuine terra cotta roof tiles would withstand the hot sun and reduce the transfer of heat to the interiors. Small balconies and porches with decorative wrought iron railings allowed breezes to circulate air on the upper floors. And it is important not to forget that careful consideration of the landscaping was critical to maximizing shade.

The ornate details of Spanish and Mediterranean Revival were in complete contrast to the pure and simple aesthetic of Florida Cracker style discussed in last month’s column. Both styles, however, were functional — providing shelter and shade from the hot sun.

Learning from Crackers

Is there an architecture native to Southwest Florida? And can we learn anything from it that’s relevant to today’s world?

Shortly after I moved to Fort Myers 20 years ago, my brother asked me to design a house for his family on Sanibel Island. I had just graduated from architecture school, and together we decided that his family needed a contemporary house that would fit into the island surroundings and respond to the local climate.

I started by looking backwards to an impossibly primitive era, a time that predated the invention of screens and air conditioning. Imagine! How had people survived? With its insects, excessive heat, humidity and subtropical rains, Florida has never offered settlers a comfortable climate.

But in that year, my research ran parallel to my own life — I was living in an apartment in a 1920s building with no air conditioning. For two years, I had to rely on the simple common sense principles used by those early settlers: 1. Maximize shade and 2. Maximize natural ventilation.

Like the very earliest inhabitants of Florida, I had to work alongside nature, not against it.

In the early 19th century, when large landowners from the North sought Seminole Indian land, a series of conflicts with American troops drove the native inhabitants from their permanent homes toward the Everglades. There, they constructed temporary open structures known as chickee (the Seminole word for house). Chickee were quick to build and easy to abandon, with steeply pitched thatched palm roofs and raised floors to provide cooling and protection from floods, insects and snakes.

In the decades that followed, other white settlers arrived in Florida. Known as Cracker farmers after the cracked corn that made up the majority of their diet, they copied principles of shade and ventilation from the simple shelters of the Seminoles, raising their floors off the ground to avoid flooding and allowing cooler air to circulate beneath the house. Tall, double-hung windows were strategically located to provide continuous cross-ventilation, and steep gabled roofs allowed the warmer air to rise out of living spaces.

Originally designed as a single room, these modified versions of the chickee structures would have been located on higher ground and oriented to minimize direct sunlight, to take full advantage of ventilation, and to utilize nearby trees’ shade.

Characteristically, these houses had deep front porches covered by large overhanging roofs to protect them from the searing sun. Steeper pitches on these roofs allowed them to shed the subtropical rains more easily.

Common to all of these houses were the materials used: wood framing made from the tall straight pines felled to clear the land, horizontal cypress siding inside and out, and metal roofs. At the time, cypress was plentiful and had extra benefits as a building material — it contains a natural preservative oil (cypressene) that renders it relatively resistant to rot and insects. Metal roofs were cheap, readily available, and — at least before they rusted — reflective of sunlight.

So as to our first question: Is there an architecture native to Southwest Florida? The answer is that Cracker and chickee structures are the original vernacular. Designed for function rather than beauty, these buildings were not self-consciously styled.

And more to the point, they were energy efficient because they had to be. Early pioneer families were able to survive in our harsh climate without air conditioning by incorporating simple passive solar and ventilation principles, just as I did in my airy apartment on the second floor. Luckily, the architect who designed my building understood these concepts, and most of the time it was remarkably liveable (let’s be fair, sometimes even air conditioning can’t make the heat in Southwest Florida bearable).

Learn from the past. Borrow from what works. Steal a good idea. These are principles that architects live by. And for my brother’s house, I did all three.

By this time, all my research had equipped me to propose a cost-effective and energy-efficient design for the new house. Not that I expected my brother and his family to live without air conditioning, but by incorporating proven architectural ideas from the past, they could rely on it less. And the benefit was that I was able to maximize the effect of natural air conditioning (Gulf breezes) more often than not.

The result was a simple island house, combining the practical elements of Florida Cracker buildings with contemporary modern architecture.

For me, this house marked the beginning of a lifelong interest in exploring a new vernacular for Florida — an energy-efficient theory of design nearly abandoned since the invention of the air conditioner, yet which also acknowledges the latest advances in technology.

We can learn a lot about structures

Buildings have place, purpose in our lives

 

There is a small part of London that will be forever Southwest Florida.
I know, because I built it.

When I moved to London in 1989, although I was born in the Midwest, I’d already spent a good part of my life in Florida — not to mention Italy — and I’m not one of those northern girls who likes to hibernate 10 months of the year. I made a pact with my English architect husband that I’d stay in his miserable gray country only if we could design and build a house that allowed me to pretend that I still lived in Florida.
So that’s what we did.

Together, two architects designed and built a white stucco house organized around an indoor courtyard, with doors that opened to the outside and windows that stretched to the ceiling 20 feet above. And the ceiling was glass — despite all assurances by our architect colleagues that a glass ceiling in waterlogged England was ridiculous.

All the rooms on the ground and second floor opened onto the indoor courtyard, which was flooded with light even on the inevitable rainy days. We filled the inner courtyard with tropical plants: bougainvillea, palms, hibiscus and orchids.

Just imagine my beautifully lit, open, airy modern house smack in the middle of a 19th century London churchyard, closed in on two sides by the original stone wall of the vicar’s garden and the other sides by the high walls of the adjacent Gothic buildings.

It wasn’t exactly typical for architecturally conservative London, and people took notice of it. The press came and wrote about it, and it was featured in the national papers.

And the amazing thing was that it worked. Against all expectations, I had my modern tropical refuge in the middle of the dour British climate.

My affinity for this Florida style started decades ago, with first visit to Sanibel was in 1972. I moved to Fort Myers after gaining my architecture degree in the 1980s. I had been fortunate enough to live and work in Florida before I built my first house, and had the opportunity to study the simple principles of design that make a positive impact on how we live in any climate.

But when I left Florida, moved to England and started my own architectural practice, I felt constantly torn. I loved my life abroad, but I missed Florida.

Nonetheless, I stuck it out in London for 15 years and established my own award-winning architectural practice, which drew attention in Europe and in the United States. In my first independent practice I worked 80-hour weeks, integrating those lessons I had learned in my early days in Florida into my designs — and fantasizing about sunshine.

In 2003, I packed up my son and my portfolio and returned to Southwest Florida. We stepped off the plane on a glorious sunny day in December, and I never looked back.
Enrolling my son in the local school, I took a job with the same architectural practice I had worked with before I left for England. And I’ve now realized a lifelong dream and established my own multidisciplinary design company here at home. My business card specifies architecture, design, lighting, furniture, graphics — but if the right treehouse came along, I’d design that too. Or an art exhibition. Or an outdoor marketplace. And you see that I’m a writer, too.

Architecture is defined as the design of structures, but it’s more than that. As an architectural columnist, I’m here to get the discussion going.

The design of a building can inspire rapture or provoke disgust. It can start conversations that continue long after the building has outgrown — or no longer fulfills — its original role.

Buildings have a purpose and a place in our lives. And some move beyond the most basic function of architecture, that of shelter, to embody broad philosophical trends that have changed human history. Others aspire to the artistic, and their designs resonate through time.

Like its residents, Southwest Florida architecture reflects a variety of backgrounds. Local architects have made their mark on our cityscapes and neighborhoods. So have architects whose names are known throughout the world. Development is changing the face of Southwest Florida, and innovative design is moving back into the realm of our ancestors, those who lived today’s “green” lifestyle.

I’ll address all of that and more, including national or even international trends that have an impact here. And I want to hear from you, too. Tell me what local architecture moves you, turns your head, makes you wonder.

We’re surrounded by architecture and its legacy. Let’s learn about it, and learn from it, together.

Aside from the sunshine, I think that’s why I came home.