Category Archives: Custom Homes

Four Considerations for Designing or Renovating Your Kitchen

Kitchen renovation with sitting room extension.

Whether you plan on updating your existing kitchen or designing one as part of a new home, getting the design right is usually a top priority on any homeowner’s requirements.

In either scenario, designing a kitchen to fit your lifestyle is a significant undertaking. Getting it right requires balancing your wish list with feasible options and a realistic budget. Working with an architect will allow you to evaluate the different possibilities available where your wishes, options, and budget intersect.

Addressing the four considerations below will help you clarify your priorities and more easily communicate them to your architect.

How should your kitchen relate to the rest of the house?

At one end of the spectrum we have kitchens that are entirely separate rooms, and at the other end are those kitchens that flow seamlessly into other areas of the house. The evolution of residential kitchens began with a completely separate dedicate building for cooking. Eventually, they became attached, walls began to disappear, and the kitchen became part of the open floor plan along with the dining and living rooms.

Consider how the kitchen should related to other areas as well. Should it be immediately adjacent to outdoor entertaining areas?  Does the kitchen need to be close to where you park your car for a shorter unloading distance? If your family tends to gather more in the kitchen during the morning, consider locating on the east side of the house to take advantage of the morning light. Will you need access to accessory functions like an outdoor grilling area or herb garden for example?

There’s not a single right arrangement of the kitchen for every scenario or lifestyle. Determining what works best for you and your family is the only right answer.

How will your kitchen be used?

Kitchens have come to incorporate design considerations far beyond their once purely functional concerns. Style, comfort, and connection have become important design consideration in the contemporary kitchen.

If your family and guests congregate in the kitchen, it’s better to think of it as an important hub in your home. Consider including ample seating along with generous work surfaces. Incorporating space for a table, a keeping room, a breakfast nook, or an island that accommodates stools will transform this utilitarian space into an enjoyable experience. On the other hand, a compact kitchen with a greater emphasis on functionality and efficient use of space may be more suitable for smaller family that rarely entertains.

You architect needs to understand how you intend to use your new or renovated kitchen in order to design the best spatial configuration for your lifestyle.

What appliances and fixtures will you need?

A significant portion of your kitchen budget should be dedicated to the appliances and fixtures you plan to install. The kind and number of appliances is so important that the functional and storage aspect of the kitchen are all but designed around them and their locations. You’ll need to provide your architect with a list of these appliance early in the process.

Your architect will take this list and coordinate the sizes and number of the appliances within the larger space and the surrounding cabinetry. Appliance selections will impact other things as well, including power and plumbing requirements, stub-out locations, installation tolerances, and working clearances.

Many appliance manufacturers produce several types of kitchen equipment, but not every one of those is the best of its kind.  Fortunately, many of the finishes offered by different manufacturers are similar enough to work alongside each other, so look for the best appliance across manufacturers.

How much and what kind of storage will you need?

While your kitchen’s spatial configuration requires some creative organization from you and your designer, the other critical component that deserves just as much attention is storage. Cabinetry can conceal as well as reveal. What things do you want out-of-sight? Do you have special items that you’d like to show off?

Apart from a dedicated pantry, your cabinetry will store everything including food, pots and pans, frequently used items and rarely use ones, small appliances, plates and flatware, first aid and medicine, emergency equipment, cleaning supplies, and recycling and rubbish.

If you’re renovating your existing kitchen, document how much space is currently dedicate to the different types of things being stored. Will you need more or less of these? Do their locations and adjacencies to each other need to be reconsidered?

Make ease of access a priority in selecting new cabinetry. Choose drawers or racks that pull out for better accessibility. Ask your architect to incorporate aging-in-place and universal design solutions that will allow your new kitchen to be functional for many years to come.

A new kitchen ore remodeled one is a complicated project. To arrive at a successful solution that meets your present and future needs, expresses your unique lifestyle, and is within your budget, you’ll need to work closely with your architect. It’s a process that can have a long lasting and positive impact on your day-to-day life.




Palmettos, Patterns, and Pigments

L: Photo of palmetto frond sheaths, commonly referred to as bootjacks. R: Initial single tile design with abstract bootjack pattern.

This past fall, I taught a graduate-level design studio at the University of Miami’s School of Architecture, where I’m one of the part-time faculty.

I like to introduce an exercise at the start of the term that challenges the students’ preconceived notions about architecture and design. Twelve students first analyzed a plant species of their choosing from the native pine rockland habitat of South Florida, identifying structures, geometries, and proportions, and patterns.  Using this information that they described through drawings and diagrams, they then developed three-dimensional systems for architecture, exploring things like connections, structure, space, and form.

On my morning commute to campus I like to grab a Cuban coffee passing through downtown Miami.  Waiting outside a vintanita at NW 1st Street and NW 1st Avenue on that sweet dark caffeinated nectar, it hit me. Cuban tiles! I’ve had a pattern tessellating through my brain for a while then, but sometimes an application for an inspiration doesn’t hit you until later.

Cuban Tiles are Cement Tiles

One theory as to why cement tile is called “Cuban Tile” in South Florida is that these finishes were entrusted to Cuban tile manufacturers who made them by hand for residences and other buildings.  The origin of cement tiles goes further back though, to Catalonia in the 1850s when they were first produced.  Because they were cheaper, more durable, easily produced, and offered virtually unlimited artistic potential, they were considered a revolution in floor finishes.

Sample medallion tile pattern from Cuban Tropical Tile Company, Miami.

Sample geometric tile pattern from Cuban Tropical Tile Company, Miami.

By the beginning of the 20th century, cement tiles were a popular high-end floor covering installed in thousands of notable public buildings and luxury homes.  During the 1940s, they regained popularity once again in Florida.

Unlike other tiles, cement tiles are not fired and there is no glaze on the tile’s surface. Instead, they are produced by hydraulically pressing a patterned layer of mineral pigments onto a layer of finely dehydrated ground Portland cement and a coarser layer of sand and cement.  High quality cement tiles use only mineral based pigments which do not fade over time like non-mineral based pigments.

Cement tile mold, France, 1920.

A handmade metal mold with a pattern design is used to apply pigments, a combination of natural mineral color pigments, high-quality white Portland cement, marble powder, and fine sand.  The handmade process gives each tile its own character and depth through slight imperfections.

Elongated hexagonal cement tile handpress.

Elongated hexagonaal cement tile handpress with pigment layer in place.

Manufacturers worldwide produce cement tiles for floor and wall applications in a variety of sizes, shapes and patterns. Smaller companies tend to use a hand-operated hydraulic press.  The inconsistent pressure applied with this type of press means that the quality of the tiles varies. Electric-powered hydraulic presses typically used by larger companies consistently produce a higher quality product with a thicker pigment layer embedded into the tile.

Wall application of cement tiles by Crafted Tiles featuring a medallion motif.


Cement tile by Granada Tile used in a stair riser application.


Abstraction has been used throughout our history from our earliest beginnings and across every culture and continent. It has been applied to nearly every material including wood, clay, stone, concrete, glass, metals, fabrics, and even our own skin. From jewelry to buildings to entire landscapes, abstraction is our shared inherited graphic language.

Designated the state tree of both South Carolina, as well as Florida, the sabal palmetto is both ubiquitous and iconic. Its range extends from the Bahamas and Cuba up across Florida and, like its boot jacks, diverges west along the Gulf of Mexico and north up the Atlantic toward Charleston, a route I know mostly by rail since I’ve been teaching in Miami.

L: Repeated single tile of abstracted bootjack pattern. R: Photo of palmetto bootjacks.

What’s been of interest to me is the patterning created where the fronds emerge along the palmetto’s trunk.  Light plays across the cylindrical imbrication, creating shadow, shade, and highlights.

The still-attached frond sheaths (the bootjacks, what are left after the upper petioles have been pruned or broken off, form a pattern similar to fish scales. The texture of the lower trunk is a result of scaring from shedding eventually shedding the bootjacks.

Abstracting the palmetto’s bootjack imbrication was actually very simple and turned out to be most similar to an argyle pattern.

Variations of abstract bootjack pattern.

Where it gets interesting is in playing with the pattern’s tessellation: rotating, offsetting, grouping and repeating sub-patterns to create some surprising geometric fields.

Two different tiling options using initial single tile. L: Alternating up/down row layout. R: Vertical mirroring and alternating up/down rows.

The other element in this developing sabal pattern is the use of color. Up to now, I’ve been working with a monochrome of four hues, focusing more on the geometric patterns.

Moving forward, there are two design elements I’ll be exploring, with color being one. The other will look at using the geometry of the pattern instead of using a square tile in which the repeating pattern is contained. I expect it to open up some really exciting results. Here’s a look at where that’ll be going. Stay tuned!

Irregular hexagonal tile organized in a repeating radial pattern. This would require two additional tile shapes, a parallelogram and regular hexagonal tile.











Three Design Concepts for a More Livable Home

Whether you’re building a new home from the ground up or undertaking a major renovation to an existing house, hiring an architect is money well invested in creating a more livable home that suits your personal lifestyle while simultaneously improving the value of one of your most important assets. Before hastily purchasing a set of stock plans (seriously, why would you?) or making your wish list of home renovation improvements, consider the following three concepts first.

Important things first.

What’s important? Differentiate the decisions that need to be made as either difficult-to-change-later or easy-to-change-later. Important decisions are the ones you need to make early in the process. Less important decisions are those made later and can be changed in the future without major disruption to the more important ones.

Selecting the right context (e. g., urban, suburban, rural) is the first step followed by the neighborhood and then the specific building lot. Having your architect conduct a site analysis to determine the best location for your home is critical and ensures that the end result takes advantage of the site’s assets while mitigating any disadvantages the lot may have.

The next step is organizing the spaces, and the relationships between them, that you need and want. You and your architect will want to discuss things like a typical day for everyone in your family. What works well now, and what doesn’t? What activities require dedicated spaces? What interior spaces should have direct access to the outside, and which do not? How should the flow of space move people through the home?

From here, other aspects of the design are incorporated, including the construction method, building systems (mechanical, electrical, and plumbing), exterior materials and colors, and interior materials and finishes. Working out decisions with your architect from most important to lesser important decisions will lead to the development of a comprehensive design solution.

Smaller can be smarter.

Meis van der Rohe adopted the motto “less is more,” a phrase originally attributed to Ad Reinhardt, an abstract expressionist artist. Think of designing and building a more livable home as distilling the best features and options into a smaller but more impactful home. Consider what activities can occur together in the same space. What spaces should be adjacent to each other, possibly eliminating hallways?

In the case of renovation projects or additions, aim to maximize and improve what you already have first. Identify those areas that are rarely used or no longer contributing to your lifestyle. These spaces are resources that could be repurposed to serve your family’s current needs. Additionally, you may want to address the furniture layout of an existing room to improve your homes livability and reduce the need for additional construction.

A home should be a dynamic assembly of spaces and functions if it’s going to serve a family with a myriad of different interests and priorities. An architect’s service is invaluable in making the most of all the decisions that go into building a new home, renovating, or adding to an existing home.

Take it outside.

Along the South Carolina coast, and particularly more so in Florida, outdoor living spaces are used year-round. Here in the Lowcountry, the addition of an outdoor fireplace can increase the usable living space during those colder winter evenings.

Porches are ubiquitous throughout the South, and they work best when connecting interior living spaces with outdoor dining areas, kitchens, terraces, and pools. Balconies that provide enough space for a couple of chairs and small table are a great feature for less public rooms in the home such as bedrooms or a study.

A new residential design or improvement project should improve your family’s connectivity as well as satisfy each family members individual needs. Selecting an architect specialized in residential design will help you increase your odds of getting it right by coordinating all the important decisions necessary for a successful project.

How Much Will Building My Custom Home Cost?

Before you so much as set pen to paper, there’s usually a host of questions that come up when you consider building a new home.  The one question that encapsulates all others is, “How much is it going to cost to build my house?”

When I’m asked this question, my first response is usually, “How much have you budgeted for the project?”  Far from being an unpleasant retort, it is a serious question.  Often, people will respond with so many dollars per square foot, which, with a simple multiplication by their desired conditioned area – Voilà! – the project budget!  But…

Ce n’est pas un budget.

Approaching your project budget in this manner obfuscates more than it accounts for.  There are just too many factors that influence the cost of your custom home, but this simple arithmetic persists as a way to easily talk about costs, from rough framing to floor finishes.

In order to meaningfully address such a complex undertaking within the space of a post such as this, we need to set some parameters, because not all houses are located, designed, and built the same.  Let’s assume the following.

  • Location:  Urban, suburban, rural (on high ground)
  • Scope:  New ground-up construction only
  • Area:  2,500 – 3,000 SF (square feet), conditioned

Your budget, and the final cost of the project, will depend largely on two interrelated factors; 1) Size, meaning how much you build, and 2) the Quality of all that you build.  Keep in mind that both are more nuanced when taking into consideration areas not part of the conditioned area – porches, decks, terraces, etc. – and the difference between a finely finished library and a bare bones mechanical room.  These differences also need to be reflected in the cost.


We have quite a range of options for building sites in the Lowcountry; a dense historic downtown, spacious suburban neighborhoods, meticulously maintained resort communities, prized beachfront sites, and magnificent river marsh locations.  These fall into roughly three categories; urban, suburban, and rural.

Urban sites located in downtown Charleston or the Old Village Mount Pleasant have their own unique set of conditions.  Limited parking, narrow lots, the historical context, and public design review are just a few issues that present challenges to designing and building a custom home.

Suburban building sites, whether as far out as Summerville or closer in like West Ashley, are generally less expensive, less design prescriptive, more spacious, and easily accessible.  The exception would include luxury resort communities like Kiawah Island, that requires a 60-minute commute, security gate passes, specific community design guidelines, and an architectural review board (ARB) that adds costs up and down the project team, from architects and builders to subcontractors and suppliers.

Rural sites located in remote areas such as Awenda to the northeast or Wadmalaw Island to the southwest generally have far fewer design restrictions – unless located in an exclusive enclave – than suburban and urban sites, but their distance from labor and material sources does add to construction costs. It’s difficult to say exactly how much, but it’s safe to assume an increase of 15%.



The cheapest foundation to build is a concrete slab on grade, a method preferred by track home builders here and across the region. If your building site is on high ground and NOT in a flood zone, then this can be something worth considering.  The next cheapest foundation is concrete footings – preferably continuous to mitigate differential settling of the building – and concrete masonry units, or CMUs.  Piles driven into the ground using heavy equipment is the more expensive foundation, but is also a necessity on sites with soft ground or in “V” flood zones where scouring from flood waters can undermine other types of foundations.  For foundation costs only, pile foundations generally cost up to three times that of slab on grade construction.


There are three interrelated factors that determine the cost of your homes structure; method of construction, labor, and time.  As a baseline, stick-built is the common construction method here, consisting site built walls framed with 2×4 (or 2x6s) studs at 16” on center, but other construction methods have made their way into Lowcountry, offering faster build times which translates to cheaper finance and insurance costs.

  • Structural Insulated Panels (SIPS) – Slightly costlier (2% or so), than an equivalent stick-built home, this method offers advantages of speedy construction, high thermal performance, wind resistance, and, for urban sites particularly, greater noise attenuation.  Homes can be built in about 75% of the time for a comparable stick-built home of comparable size, saving a lot of money that gets eaten up by a typical construction schedule.
  • Modular – Modular construction methods present can impact design choices, but for homeowners wanting a minimalist aesthetic and a quick build time it’s an attractive option.  Savings resulting from this method can be pocketed or applied to other aspects of the home like higher quality finishes, lighting and plumbing fixtures, or more energy efficient windows and doors.  Homes can typically be built in 50% of the time for a conventionally framed home.

If we assume that the minimum construction cost for a simple home is around $160 – 180/SF, as the design becomes more complex and higher quality finishes are selected, this guestimate will quickly reach to $250/SF.  Highly custom designs and artfully crafted homes will start out around $300/SF and rise as high as a homeowner is willing to pay for more refined details, high performance systems, and luxury items.

All of this is to say that, at best, a ballpark cost-per-square foot construction budget can only give you an approximation at the outset of your building project.  You would have to develop a highly detailed set of drawings and specifications describing the level of desired quality, fixtures, finishes, etc. to have a more complete picture of the final cost.

This is certainly prudent when you’re ready for your project to move forward, but if you’re not, doing so could mean wasting tens of thousands of dollars on design services only to find out what you’ve dreamed up is beyond your budget.  A low-cost Discover and Focus consultation that includes conceptual level design and preliminary budgeting can help you avoid such a scenario and save you a lot of pain in the process.

Time To Rethink How We Value How We Build

I met with some colleagues to discuss our infill development plans for downtown Charleston yesterday at the Rarebit on King. Ideas on what to build and where to build it were being batted around over dinks and carefully placed jokes.

As we were focusing on a particular lot, the issue of appraisal values came up. Specifically, how they really don’t account for much, yet can determine how much the bank will provide you on a mortgage or construction loan.

For example, take two different buildings built at the same time, the same neighborhood, the same size, and the same finishes, but with one difference. Building A was built by a shitty builder using shitty sub-contractors doing shitty work, while Building B was built by an excellent builder using excellent sub-contractors doing excellent work.

Or, think of it a different way. Say Building A was built to the minimum standard, which is basically the local building code, while Building B was built to a much higher standard such that its operation costs were dramatically lower than Building A by hundreds of dollars.

Guess what? More than likely, a comparative appraisal of the two won’t show a difference in value. An appraiser briefly walks through a house, getting a very general idea of the condition of the building and its room count, and may ask if there are any unobservable problems. That’s it. It’s still pretty hard to find a comparison for a higher performing home in most areas these days.

So, why would you want to build a better performing home if its energy and cost saving features aren’t reflected in its valuation? (insert record scratch sound here) Well, because those energy and cost saving features add up big time over the life of the building! 

Take for example the case of Gene Myers, a builder in Denver, CO. Myers’s company has built standard three-bedroom 2,000 SF homes that are highly efficient, with HERS scores in the low 40s (that’s pretty good by the way), for sale competitively around $480,000. In that same development, they also offer similarly sized homes with photovoltaic panels to achieve net-zero energy, and those houses cost just $35,000 more than the standard houses.

But here’s the thing, they’re only $35,000 more expensive when you look at the initial cost. Factoring in operating costs dramatically changes the formula. According to Myers, the $35,000 up-charge to his customers adds $100 a month to their mortgage payment, but sis analysis shows that owners will save $300 a month in energy bills.

If I said to you, “Give me $100 and I’ll give you $300 back,” how would that sound? Sounds pretty good, right? Now, why don’t we do that the first month you live in your new home, and then let’s do that every month for as long as you own the home? A net savings of $200/ month over a 30-year mortgage is a lot!

So, homeowners, and architects, builders, real estate agents, appraisers, and lenders need to rethink how we value how we build if we’re serious about building a better preforming built environment.

Your High-End Home Isn’t a High-Performance Home Without Proper Ventilation

Ventilation is an essential component in achieving healthy indoor air quality, and if your high-end home isn’t proving that to you and your family, it could be increasing your chances of poor health for everyone who lives under its roof.

Ventilation – The catch phrase use to be that homes needed to ‘breathe’. They still do, but not in the uncontrolled manner they’ve been allowed. Buildings are now being constructed with more air-tight envelopes. This has led to the need for greater control over a home’s breathability by introducing controlled fresh outside air in addition to a home’s typical HVAC system. Controlled whole-house ventilation is a cost-effective and energy efficient way to supply fresh air throughout the living area.

Here’s why you high-end home needs to prioritize ventilation:

Removes excess humidity (we do live in the South)

One of the primary reasons for using a properly sized, well-designed ventilation system in conjunction with airtight construction is to lower humidity levels that have a negative effect in two ways. First, Significant differences between indoor and outdoor temperatures can pose a problem by causing condensation inside the structure of a building and the spaces within. When this happens in your high-end home, you can end up with high levels of mold and mildew. Second, a lower relative humidity level dramatically improves the comfort for those living in the home.

Reduce symptoms of seasonal allergies

Respiratory problems like asthma can be triggered by damp and moldy conditions. Without adequate ventilation, your airtight high-end house could be producing excessive humidity levels that promote mold spores and dust mites. In general, keeping the relative humidity below 50% considerably reduces the growth of dust mite. A whole-house ventilation system extracts the excess humidity and keeps mold and mildew from forming.

As we say in the South, it pollens instead of snows, and pollen is one of the major causes of seasonal allergies. An effective ventilation system filters out pollen and other large particles while suppling fresh air that results in improved health for seasonal allergy sufferers. Keeping the windows closed during high pollen levels helps ensure that your air conditioning system is running as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Reduce exposure to Radon gas

Radon is a colorless and odorless radioactive gas that is found most commonly in areas where granite and other ‘igneous’ rocks make up a large part of the geography. While not a problem here in the lowcountry and coastal areas, high-end homes in the mountains and foothills of South Carolina should take precautions against exposure to radon gas. It can be pulled into living spaces from the ground around basements and crawlspaces by air pressure differences between the interior of the house and the exterior.

Reduce the impact of chemical pollutants

We spend much of our lives inside. We also live and work in environments where there are far more chemical compounds in the air that can have negative health effects. Many of these come in the form of VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. While you can’t see them, they do usually give off a smell.

VOCs are found in paints, stains, sealants, carpets, furniture, and even house cleaning products. A newly built or renovated house can have VOC levels that reach as much as 1,000 times higher than outdoor levels. When designing and planning your new home, renovation, or addition, choose finish materials that have minimal off-gas.

A whole-house, balanced ventilation system utilizing a HRV or ERV unit (preferred for hot humid climates) that introduces a constant stream of fresh filtered air to dilute and control a wide range of pollutants. Stale air is then typically exhausted through spaces like bathrooms and kitchens. To ensure your high-end home provides a high quality indoor living environment, be sure to prioritize a high-performance ventilation strategy from the outset.

Designing Your Home with Artwork in Mind

Photo: Dirk Vogel

For anyone building a new house, one of the things that deserves a discussion with your architect is the display of artwork. Whether it’s an extensive art collection, family portraits and photos, or just one very special piece, careful planning is important in showcasing the things you value most. Because there are so many variables, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach when displaying your artwork. But, by applying a few simple strategies and avoiding certain pitfalls, your artwork will enliven the spaces it calls home.

The Artwork

Let’s first consider what you’ll be displaying. Different kinds of artwork have qualities that will influence how you display them.

Oil paintings can present problems without properly considering the lighting that’s directed at the them, producing unwanted spectral highlights. An evenly diffused light source works best for oil-base artwork.

Acrylic paintings are usually not glossy and therefore don’t have the glare problems associated with oils, so any type of light source may be used.

Artwork that has been placed behind glass often has problems with reflection and glare. Non-reflective glass with proper lighting placement can help solve these problems.

Sculpture and other three-dimensional artwork can be more complicated to display. These are ideally lit from three different angles. Some, however, can be lit by a single light source. In these cases, the location and angle of the light is up to the owner. It may look best lit directly from above, from below, or from one side to create a desired effect.

Photo: Alexandra Lechner

Ambient, Direct, or Both

When designing spaces that will have artwork, it’s important to consider whether you’ll use ambient, direct, or a combination of both.

Ambient light is the general lighting of the room. This is easily calculated using the area of the room (width x depth) multiplying that by 1.5: width x depth x 1.5 = Recommended Wattage.

The general rule for accenting a piece of art is to light it three times brighter than the rest of the room. So, if you are using a combination of ambient and direct lighting in a room, make sure the artwork’s lighting is three times brighter than the space’s ambient light.

Creating layers of light enhances the overall ambiance of the space. With today’s technology, you can create custom scenes that mix varying levels of illumination across both ambient and direct light sources for different times of day.

Work the Angles

The consensus of lighting professionals is that a 30-degree angle from the vertical viewing plane is optimal for projecting light onto a piece of art, preferably, from a ceiling-mounted source, and aimed at the center of the work.

If the piece has a large frame, adding 5 degrees to the angle can help avoid casting an unwanted shadow on the work. To accent the texture in a piece of art, reduce the angle by five degrees. If the angle of the light source is too close, it will produce unwanted raking shadows. If it’s too far way, it could produce unwanted glare.

For large pieces, even illumination is best achieved with either a linear surface-mounted light or multiple recessed fixtures from above to ensure full light distribution and prevent glare and annoying shadows.

Light Fixtures

To best illuminate the art work, it’s best to use bulbs that have a Color Rendering Index (CRI) of 90 or above. The index is a scale from 0–100 that rates how accurately a light source reflects color and intensity compared to natural light.

As far as the light source’s temperature, 2000–3000 Kelvin (K) is considered the best range for artwork, producing a warm, soft glow that will highlight the work without distorting the color palette.

World-renown museums are installing LED (light emitting diode) lighting. These bulbs emit less heat and block ultraviolet light rays. While more expensive, they’re a sound investment in the long run by consuming less energy and not causing damage to your prized photographs and paintings.

Ceiling-Mounted Accent Lights

Directional pinhole spotlights are a great way to illuminate individual art pieces. They can be recessed or surface-mounted. Their ability to adjust the light’s direction and control the light’s beam spread ensures that all the artwork is illuminated, not just a portion of it.

Photo: Gustavo Bernasconi

Track Lights

Track-lighting systems perform much the same as ceiling-mounted accent lights, but provide the additional advantage of flexibility. A recessed ceiling fixture isn’t easily moved if you decide to relocate a painting, but track lighting allows you to conveniently move a fixture or take one off.

Photo: Dirk Vogel

Wall Washers

It’s not necessary have to have dedicated lighting for each artwork. Instead you can wash the wall with light. Using wall washing fixtures is a more casual way of lighting artwork that delivers a wide distribution of light. They come in many types including recessed, surface-mounted, and track-mounted fixtures that can be placed on walls, ceilings, and floors. Wall washers accomplish two things.

Photo: Dirk Vogel

First, they create a brighter wall where art is displayed. Second, indirectly light the rest of the room. This technique is preferred by many contemporary art collectors. It also provides flexibility for changing what’s displayed on the wall. Since it’s evenly lit, there’s no need to add, remove, or adjust fixtures.

Picture Lights

Picture lights are mounted on the wall or directly on the frames of individual artworks. As a result, the fixtures are typically equipped with very low-wattage bulbs. Picture lights create an intimate space in front of the work and are better suited for smaller works of art. However, there are a few manufacturers that make very large picture lights capable of illuminating areas taken up by larger pieces.

Because of their visibility and location, the style of these lights should be considered with the overall look and feel of the room. While the fixtures themselves don’t require rough-in during construction, picture lights with cords require an outlet and hard-wired models need power run directly to them, so coordinating this during the design process is crucial.

Things to Avoid

It should go without saying to avoid direct sunlight. But, I’ll say it. Avoid. Direct. Sunlight. If the artwork is particularly delicate, e.g. works on paper, this is especially important.

Wherever possible, use walls that are north-facing, and avoid westward facing walls that receive the brunt of afternoon heat.

Avoid using fluorescent bulbs. Just don’t use the garish things.

Avoid unsecured and frame-attached lighting. Lighting fixtures that aren’t properly secured could move and damage your artwork, especially frame-attached fixtures. Avoid these wherever you can, but if you must use them, take extra precautions to ensure they’re properly attached.

Decorative light fixtures can cast unwanted patterns of light and shadows on walls were artwork is being displayed. Narrow spaces like foyers, hallways and smaller rooms are particularly susceptible to this occurring. Beautifully designed decorative light fixtures should be given enough space for their own appreciation while not compromising the display of your artwork.

Decorative lighting by David Trubridge.

To minimize damage, keep halogen lamps a safe distance away and equip the fixtures with lenses that filter UV light. Better yet, use LED bulbs. LED bulbs do not emit UV light and produce very little heat. Think ahead and invest in the right lighting during the design and construction of your new home so it doesn’t end up costing you what can’t be replaced.

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.