Jim Thomas, AIA, of Thomas & Denzinger Architects has spent much of his career immersed in the lush, atmospheric environment of South Carolina’s barrier islands. While the firm’s houses convey a necessary sense of protection from this lovely but storm-tossed setting, they also create a much rarer sense of openness to the landscape. “We see our residential architecture as a vehicle to bring people close to nature—to intensify the experience of being on the land,” he says.
This private weekend residence on Kiawah Island beautifully accomplishes Thomas’ task. A series of poured concrete walls running east-west organize its staggered floor plan, guiding the eye to a distant view of the Atlantic Ocean. “The first day I walked the site with the owner, we both noticed that the most dramatic view is to the east,” Thomas recalls. “There’s a long view over the marshes that ultimately opens to the ocean. There are delightful secondary views, but the long view is the most dramatic and mysterious.” The cast-in-place walls point you toward this vista, keeping it front and center as you move through the house.
By leaving intact the concrete’s rough patina, Thomas, project architect Joel Wenzel, AIA, LEED AP, and interior designer Paola Thomas gave it an organic, earthen character. And this durable material stands up to salty air, hurricane-force gales, and airborne objects—a definite plus in coastal Carolina. “When the storms come, debris and tree limbs go flying,” Thomas says. Cedar shingles cover the north-south exterior walls, forming a softer contrast to the hard, monolithic concrete. The shingles are bleached to a gray that will turn silver over time, so from a distance, it’s hard to tell the difference between the two materials. As you get closer to the house, the subtle textural variation comes into focus.
Skillfully layered massing makes the house appear smaller than its 5,000 square feet. The concrete walls slice through the interior space, carving it into linked fragments. Especially at the guest wing and the master bedroom wing, the plan jogs in and out to ensure a constant visual connection with the site. Variably sloped shed roofs contribute to the impression that the home is almost melting back into the surrounding maritime forest. “The staggered form allows the volume of the house to dissolve into the vegetation,” Thomas says. “The irregularity of it makes the site come alive in a way that a box wouldn’t do.” And the complex footprint echoes the jagged outlines of the barrier islands themselves—just as the home’s tall shape jibes with the height of the live oak, pine, and cedar trees on the site.
Climate concerns played a significant role throughout the design process. The project’s extra height stems partly from local flood zone requirements dictating that the floor areas sit at least 16 feet above sea level. All of the glass can withstand 150 mile-per-hour winds. Steel window and door frames plus generous structural steel add another layer of fortitude.
Despite its sturdy materials, the house possesses a remarkably permeable quality. Its screened porches and generous glazing let light and air flow, and deep overhangs enhance the cross-ventilation. According to Thomas, the building’s transparency and lightness serve as critically important elements of regionally appropriate design. “In this part of the world, it’s really important that a house have a sense of airiness,” he says. “In the South, you want the house to breathe.”