Author Archives: Tommy Manuel

Three Things Determine The Cost Of Your New Home

So, you’ve done a ton of daydreaming about what your new home will look like, how the rooms should feel, what kind of tile you want in the bathroom, even that perfect light fixture in the power room.

You’ve carefully put together a design brief that describes your every wish. You’ve stood on the site envisioning where the house should sit, how you’ll approach it, what those views will be.

And you should. It makes my job more enjoyable and helpful to you.

But, inevitably all that daydreaming, researching, clipping, and pinteresting has to confront that one question that every project must face.


I wish I could parade out a formula for you that would definitively answer that perennial question. Believe me, if I could, you wouldn’t be reading this post.

It will cost what it costs is the best answer you’re going to get. That’s because there are so many variables involved in building your new home.

Fortunately, these variables, their multitude of combinations and permutations, can be summed up in the context of three, just THREE; Size, Complexity, and Quality.


This is simply the amount you plan to build, typically expressed by the area measured in square feet. Easy enough, right?

Hold on. There are two other aspects to consider when thinking about the size of your new home.

One is volume. Are all the rooms the same height? Do you want a double-height space in your foyer or great room? Are any of the rooms vaulted, or are they all flat?

Second, all spaces are not necessarily designed and finished to the same level. Some rooms will cost more than others.


Where to we see complexity enter a project. There’s several places where this can happen; the roof line, the layout of interior spaces, finish details, coordination of structural and mechanical systems, etc.

Pretty much anything that goes into a house can be either more or less complex. A successful design prioritizes the degree of complexity across all aspects of your home.

Now, I’m not saying complexity is a negative thing. Far from it. Complexity adds interest and delight when it’s applied appropriately.

Architecture is the art of knowing where to best spend your money. And, in the case of complexity, it just costs more.


The level of quality is the final variable that impacts the cost of your project. Certain materials, finishes, fixtures, accessories, and workmanship simply cost more.

Again, understanding architecture as the art of knowing where to best spend your money applies equally to quality as it does to complexity.

But, quality is a little different from the variables of complexity and size. It can be more subjective.

Selecting a less costly option, a tile for example, could be based more on the fact that you simply prefer its color and shape over the more expensive option.


So, how do these variables influence the design of your new home? Have a look at the diagram below.


Size, Complexity, and Quality are the three  interdependent variables that determine how accommodating, interesting, and durable your new home will be.

In the overlap of quality and size, you’ll end up dying of boredom in a finely appointed house before you get to see it all.

Where size overlaps with complexity, your giant ostentatious house will come crashing down as a result of the cheap construction, hopefully before you go mad from too much complexity.

Designing and building your house where complexity and quality overlap will basically get you a tiny house with a serious diva complex, and no one will want to visit you. Ever.

Now, of course you’re not going to allocate your budget to just two of the three variables. Say you want your home to have the maximum square footage you can possible have. Well quality of materials and the complexity of the design will need to be scaled back.

Likewise, if you value a high level of craftsmanship, fine finishes, and interesting details, you should aim for the minimum about of area you need.

The goal in working with your architect is to find that spot where you have the right amount of each to your liking. That’s where your home is.

So, what’s your priority in a home? Size? Complexity? Quality?

Towards A New Lowcountry Architecture, Part 1


Le Corbusier

October 6th will mark the birthday of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, more famously known as Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965). An architect, urban planner, designer, painter, writer, he was one of the pioneers of the modern architecture movement.

My first introduction to his work was in a small college town nestled in the foothills of South Carolina. On seeing his iconic Villa Savoye for the first time, I was taken across the state and back to the houses on the edge of America, Folly Island, where my family would vacation during the summer.

While my first impression found a connection to a familiar type of building back then, Le Corbusier’s Five Points that would inform this 85 year-old modern masterpiece has some valuable lessons to teach new houses being built now in the South Carolina lowcountry.

It was in his 1923 book, Vers une Architecture, that Le Corbusier outlined those five points for a new architecture.

  • Pilotis (it’s French for stilts) – Use of columns instead of load-bearing walls as the structural system.
  • Free plan – The absence of load-bearing walls means that interior spaces are flexible.
  • Free Façade – Structural columns allow the façades (sides of the building) to be flexible.
  • Ribbon windows –Long horizontal windows were intended for even illumination and ventilation of the rooms within.
  • Functional Roof – The roof replaces the land occupied by the building, serving as a garden and terrace.

Before explaining how these points can positively influence the design of new homes here along our coast, it’s important to understand how the design and construction of the vernacular beach house, as well as new homes currently being built, has evolved.

When the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) height regulations were enacted, it dramatically changed how coastal vernacular architecture functioned, even though its aesthetic largely remained the same. From an architectural standpoint, these changes have negatively impacted the function and experience of residential architecture in the lowcountry, or that haven’t been sufficiently reevaluated in the least. I call these my Five Critiques. In Part 2 of this post, I’ll discuss how these shortcomings can be turned into positive design opportunities.

1. It’s A House…On Stilts.

Typical beach house construction.

I’ll admit, I am a bit nostalgic about an old ramshackle beach house that looks like someone just took your typical home and precariously plopped it down on some skinny posts sticking out of the ground.

Whether they’re piers, piles, posts, or columns, the ground floor structural system of  homes built in flood zones typically stop at the first floor level. The rest of the house is framed using dimensional lumber, commonly referred to as being “stick built.” Structurally this is perfectly sound, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. But, architecturally, this results in a house having little vertical design continuity.

In some cases, break-away panels may be added to the ground level, helping to anchor the house to the ground.

2. Your Front Door Isn’t Your Door.

A house that I provided very limited design services for recently sold on the market. It was listed for $939,000. That’s a lot money. But here’s the thing, and this is true of even more expensive homes, that beautifully front porch and three-quarter lite mahogany front door, the homeowners will never use it.


Calling myself out on my own design to expose local building practices that should be reconsidered.

When a house is elevated a full story above the ground, the natural response is to locate the parking underneath, a common practice here along the coast. Parking underneath led to the need for a stair from the first floor to the garage below. Problem solved!

Unfortunately, this has led to the most regrettable experience of new homes being built in flood-prone areas today.

Your daily experience of arriving and leaving your home is now through the most uninspiring, boring, utilitarian space imaginable, or unimagined in this case. It often has no natural light, little to no finishes, and poor artificial lighting. If you’re lucky enough, that stair will lead you up into a nice foyer. If you’re lucky, but probably not. There’s no reason it has to be this way. It just requires thinking things through.

Hey, if you spend that much money, a million, or more, don’t you think you should have a vastly different experience each time you come home or go out? I certainly think you should.

3. Wasted Space, Right Under Your Feet.

The big shortcoming, I see with most houses being built with parking underneath, is that the space beneath them usually ends up being wasted or underutilized. It often becomes storage of sorts for more stuff people know what to do with.

The first space you experience?

The image was taken during construction, but you can be sure it doesn’t look much different that it’s now completed.

Rarely, if ever, are these spaces planned and designed for a specific purpose in advance. Most of the time they are left bare and unfinished even though they’ve become the primary means of entering the house for the homeowners. That’s really too bad.

Sure, there are limitations on what you can do below the base flood elevation, but these areas can be designed as more interesting spaces by using flood resistant construction.

4. Ground? What Ground?

Elevating your home is good thing because it places one of your most valuable assets out of harm’s way. The other advantage is that doing so can also provide your home with some pretty incredible views if you’re fortunate to have a site overlooking one of our beaches, the beautiful marshes, or along our lazy rivers.

cruise ship house

Early in my career, it was joked that the experience of the houses we were designing was like being on the deck of a cruise ship, coasting along above the landscape.

The downside to this is that it disconnects the interior spaces of the first floor from the ground and its immediate surroundings.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite things about my grandparents’ house was the huge azaleas that came right up to the window sills. You could press your nose up to the window and watch the bubble bees buzzing about when they were in full bloom.

A well designed house should connect us with the earth and its beauty, not separate us from it.

5. Nature Stops Here.

Often there’s a clearly delineated line between the outside and inside with most all houses, not just those here. In the case of homes here, space is cleared away to build what amounts to a considerable footprint despite the little physical connection to the ground they actually make.

For an elevated house, it sure has a big footprint.

Landscaping is run up to the perimeter of the houses, if at all, where it remains only enjoyable to passersby on the street or sidewalk. In some cases, there may be an elevated terrace with a pool and planters that attempt to bring nature just a little bit closer to the first floor.

That’s a good start, but good design can go much further toward integrating a lowcountry house with the beautiful landscape in which we’re fortunate enough to live. And it should.


So, there you have it, my Five Critiques of the current state of lowcountry vernacular architecture. Stay tune for the second part of this post. I’ll explain how these shortcomings can be turned into positive design opportunities for your new home, whether it’s on the beach, looking out over the marsh, set along a river, or nestled between twisting live oaks. Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think.


Never Ask An Architect To Draw Your Plans

So, what should I ask my architect to do?

Ask them to design a house that takes your breath away!

No, I’m serious. That is the value of working with an architect, not a set of plans to get your project through the building department.

More city Block, 2007.

More City Block. Graphite, colored pencil on parcel paper. 2007.

Architects still draw by hand. Most of that takes place in the early stages of your project. It continues throughout the project as a quick way to sketch out ideas and details as things develop.

However, the tools of our profession have evolved along with technology. When I embarked on my architectural training and education, I did so in part for a very simple, and in hindsight, naive reason. I liked to draw by hand.

Twenty years later, a lot has changed. Most architects now use computer aided design software. In my first job, both computer and hand drawing were used to produce plans for high-end custom homes on Kiawah Island.

Now, in my own practice, nearly every drawing, if not all, is generated with the computer. In fact, the drawings are actually a by-product of a virtual three-dimensional model (I’ll be elaborating on the added value of this for you, the client, in an upcoming post, so stay tuned).

I still sketch to develop ideas in the early stages of the project and to work out construction details, but even these I sometimes find easier to develop and visualize with the use of the computer.

It wasn’t long into my training as an architect that I realized it wasn’t drawing itself that held the most value. It was the ideas that drawing could express. There has to be a concept, a big idea, that is communicated through the architect’s tools, regardless of what they are, into a building. That is architecture.

You don’t expect a musician to just give you notes. You expect a song.

So, instead of asking your architect for a plan, ask them for the big idea. Ask them for architecture.

Iconic Building of the Month | September 2016 | Stahl House (Case Study House #22)

Stahl House by Pierre Koenig, Los Angeles, 1960.

Image: Julius Shulman

The Stahl house was part of the Case Study Houses, a program sponsored by Arts & Architecture magazine, which commissioned architects of the day to design and build inexpensive and efficient homes for the residential housing boom caused by the end of World War II.

Stahl House (Case Study House #22), plan.


The house is considered an iconic representation of modern architecture in Los Angeles during the twentieth century. It was made famous by a Julius Shulman photograph showing two women leisurely sitting in a corner of the house with an eventide panoramic view of the city through floor-to-ceiling glass walls. It has been the setting for numerous fashion shoots, films, and advertising campaigns.

Stahl House (Case House #22) Arrival side view.

In 1999, the house was declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. In 2007, the American Institute of Architects listed the Stahl House (Case Study House #22) as one of the top 150 structures on its “America’s Favorite Architecture” list, and the only privately owned home on the list. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.

Image: Julius Shulman

Just Another Hurricane Season in Paradise

The end of August marked the 24 anniversary of Hurricane Andrew slamming into South Florida, and it’ll be 27 years this month since Hurricane Hugo ripped into the South Carolina lowcountry. Both events caused significant damage and more importantly, loss of life.

Just another hurricane season in Paradise, right.

The vernacular architecture of the lowcountry, and southern coastal regions in general, developed as a response to the heat, humidity and storms typical of our region.

As building science and technology have advanced, there are more improved ways of building your coastal home to withstand severe weather events like floods and hurricanes. Here’s the 5 strategies for building not just a beautiful home, but one that is also a flood and hurricane resistant one.


1. Don’t let it blow away.

Aside from the necessary structural engineering, the shape and configuration of your home can actually have an influence on whether or not it stays put in a hurricane.

For example, studies have been done on what shape house, what type of wall construction, and which type of roof  bests performs in extreme weather conditions.

Square houses were found to be the sturdiest shape for high winds, while rectangular configurations with length to width ratios of 1:3 or less are also perform well. Week spots are typically created at inside corners.

Reinforce concrete block walls outperform other wall construction methods, but properly engineered wood-framed structures also perform well.

Hipped roofs with an angle of approximately 30 degrees outperformed other roof types and slopes, but are more costly to build. Simple gabled roofs are acceptable. Overhangs perform best when they’re between 1 1/2 – 2 feet in depth if enclosed or 8 inches if open.


2. Elevate the building.

Avoiding damage from flood waters is simple, build above them. Homes in flood zones are required to be built at or above the Base Flood Elevation (BFE) depending on where you’re building. For example, in Miami Beach, the first floor of a home has to at least be built at the same height as the BFE. In the City of Charleston, the minimum height is 1 foot above BFE, but in Charleston County, the first floor of a home is required to be built 2 feet above BFE.

The BFE is determined by Flood Insurance Rate Maps, or FIRMs, and is a regulatory requirement for floodproofing of structures. The relationship between the BFE and a structure’s elevation also determines your flood insurance premium.


3. Keep the rain out.

Rain comes from all directions during a storm, driving moisture into exterior walls. It’s therefore good practice to provide a drainage plane directly behind the siding to allow water to escape instead of getting trapped inside the wall.

Other areas susceptible to wind-driven water intrusion is attic vents, areas around windows and doors, soffits, wall penetrations for utilities, and cracks in exterior finish materials. Making sure these are properly detailed and constructed is critical to keeping your home dry.


4. Use materials that can get wet.

Two of the most common building materials widely used in hurricane and flood prone regions are also most susceptible to water damage. Can you guess what they are?

Well, the first is paper-faced gypsum board, also known as drywall.

The best thing to do is simply don’t use it. Using non-paper-faced gypsum on the inside of exterior walls is a better solution because it stands up to moisture better.

The second building material to avoid is fiberglass batt insulation. You know, the pink fluffy stuff.

Should that insulation get wet during a flooding or hurricane event, you’re gonna have problems. Instead, your home should be insulated with rigid foam or rock wool boards on the exterior. They’re hydrophobic, a fancy word meany that they tend to repel water.


5. Design the building so that it can dry out when it does get wet.

Once your home has been designed using the strategies above, the final step is to take a worst-case scenario approach, meaning you should consider what happens when things do get wet.

Walls, floors and ceilings should be designed so that they can be opened up and allowed to dry. This is easily achieved. For example, detailing walls so that they can be opened at the top and bottom allow for air flow to remove moisture in the wall.

In addition, consider thees recommendations for resilient design from the Urban Land Institute in their article Trying To Reason With Hurricane Season.

Know What You Can Build Before You Buy

Here’s a question for you.

Say you’re in the market to purchase a property that you plan to build a new home on. Or, maybe it’s a vacation home. Now, ordinarily, you’d be looking at a few properties, and trying to make a decision based on their individual locations, features, problems, opportunities, value, etc.

That’s all well and good. But, what if you could see into the future of one or more scenarios that you’re considering?

What if I told you that you could get critical insights about how the property would inform the planning and design of your new home, and how your new home would enhance the experience of the property BEFORE you buy?

How valuable would that be in making the best decision on a very important purchase?

I’m guessing you might be saying to yourself, “How is that possible?”

Well, it is! And, here’s how you can.

One of the services I offer my clients is what I call my Discover and Focus consultation.

Site analysis for a Discover and Focus consultation.

With it, you’ll get just what it implies, you’ll discover the opportunities and limitations of the property, as well as gain a clearer focus on the how your needs and wishes could enhance the site.

Purchasing a property for a new home or a vacation house is a big commitment. This low-cost consultation can help you avoid making the wrong decision.

It will also give you valuable information in making many right decisions after you’ve decided on a property.

One of three site planning options for a Discover and Focus consultation.

If you’re looking to buy a property and build, you owe it to yourself and your family to know WHAT you can build BEFORE you buy.

Call (843–276–2074) or email me to schedule a free meeting at my office to talk about your building plans and what how my Discover and Focus Consultation can help you.

Iconic Building of the Month | August 2016 | Farnsworth House

This month’s buidling is Mies Van Der Rohe’s iconic Farnsworth House.

Image Source: | Mike Crews

Highly controversial at the time of it’s completion in 1951, the house would later be added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004 and designated a National Landmark in 2006.

The house – designed for Edith Farnsworth as a weekend retreat – embodies the Miesian mantra “less is more.” Mies unpacks this further stating, “the essentials for living are floor and roof. Everything else is proportion and nature.”

Farnsworth House, plan.

Indeed, the structure’s minimalist elegance and the transparency that connects the one-room space to it’s surroundings are framed by the parallel planes of the elevated floor and sheltering roof.

Image Source: | Mike Crews

But, the most powerful experience of the house is not from the outside, but the inside, where the nature’s tapestry becomes the ornamentation.

“If you view nature through the glass walls of the Farnsworth House, it gains a more profound significance than if viewed from the outside. That way more is said about nature — it becomes part of a larger whole.”

— Mies Van Der Rohe

Image Source: | Mike Crews

Even as a master work of architecture, there are couple shortcomings to Farnsworth House.

First, siting. The weekend house was built in a floodplain, and has since been subjected to damaging water levels in 1956, 1996, 1998, and more recently in 2008. The d ecision to build the house on other higher ground of the property instead of so close to the river could have avoided multiple damaging flood events.

Second, energy efficiency. The house is incredibly energy inefficient due to it’s lack of insulation, non-thermally broken construction details, and prevalence of glass walls. However, if the house were constructed today, it could improve it’s efficiency remarkably by making use of thermally broken multi-paned insulated windows, thermally broken connection details, and advanced insulating materials.

Image Source: | Mike Crews

Still, the Farnsworth house stands as an icon of Miesian modernism, encapsulating the architect’s design principles in an elegantly simple solution.