Lowcountry Modern

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.


5 responses to “Towards A New Lowcountry Architecture, Part 1”

  1. Sandy Brossard says:

    I loved this blog, especially the poignant observation you clearly took away from your childhood: “A well designed house should connect us with the earth and its beauty, not separate us from it.” May we be grounded by the earth and its beauty, wherever we are.

    I, also, especially appreciated the point about the ostentatious front door that may be used rarely by the guest who isn’t “family” enough to come through the family entrance. It reminded me that our homes should be designed to please the dwellers rather than the visitors. After all, if the dwellers are happy, the visitors will have a far more enjoyable experience.

    Thoughtfully written!

    • Tommy Ray says:

      Thanks, Sandy. It really is a user-focused design approach. When homes in the lowcountry weren’t required to be elevated in areas where they are now, it wasn’t so much a problem. The combination of FEMA height regulations and parking underneath separated the user experiences of homeowner and visitor. Resolving this should be interesting.

  2. Crystal Kornickey says:

    I am so excited to know your ideas for the future of architecture in the Lowcountry. I couldn’t agree more with your statement that a well designed house should connect us with the earth and its beauty, not separate us from it. I would love a home that utilizes space efficiently, with an abundance of natural lighting and connects with nature. I can’t wait to read part 2!

  3. DT illumi-naughty says:

    Reconstituted ground plane need not be on a roof.

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