Project DescriptionOn Site
A Georgia Retreat Takes The Broad View.
Young architect designs first house for parent. It is a story as old as the profession. But in designing a weekend home for his father, architect Eric Robinson experienced some twists on this time-honored rite of passage. The site, on a barrier island near Savannah, Ga., overlooked a beautiful stretch of tidal river. front. But run-of-the-mill houses crowded the other sides, creating a muddled backdrop. Robinson himself was inconveniently far away. Living and working in the San Francisco Bay area, he would have to oversee construction from across the continent. And while parents ought to be the most cooperative of clients, the elder Robinson was sure to have strong opinions of his own. A successful real estate developer in the historic district of Savannah, he was trained as an architect himself. It adds up to a pretty tall order for a fellow working on his first house.
But if the prospects were enough to make any architect take a deep breath, the results betray not the least bit of strain. For one thing, the new house, which replaces a dilapidated rancher, is perfectly at home on its site. To preserve the oaks, pines, cedars, and native grasses that had grown up around the old house, Robinson confined the new work to the existing clearing. Because flood-zone regulations required that living spaces be raised at least 6 feet above grade, he perched the house on steel columns. Fiber-cement wall panels, tern-coated stainless steel siding, and aluminum storefront windows minimize maintenance in the salt atmosphere.
The building's T-shaped plan defines two outdoor spaces: a graveled entry court and a pool area facing the river. Dividing these two zones is a 4-foot-high landscape wall that plunges below grade to serve as the end wall of the pool itself. An open space between the top of the wall and the main structure above offers a horizontal band of view toward the river. This glimpse of water, land, and sky is the first in a series of intentional experiences that Robinson choreographed into the house. Visitors reach the elevated living spaces via an outside stair whose steel stringers and cable railing suggest a ramp to a floating dock. The shallow rise of the steps “kind of slows you down,” Robinson says.
The transition is a fitting prelude to the house's interior, which distills the peacefulness of the natural surroundings. On his initial visits to the site, Robinson was struck by what he calls “the expansive horizontality” of the views, which take in river, salt marsh, and a distant sliver of the Atlantic shore. “I wanted to somehow capture that,” he says. His answer was a structure that conveys the broad sweep of the landscape. A moment frame system frees the outside walls from any structural duties (see “Details: Start at the Finish,”). The steel I-beam columns rise, exposed, through the floor just inside the curtain wall, which incorporates window units up to 13 feet wide.
Because Robinson envisioned the house as “a kind of platform for experiencing nature,” much of his effort went toward making rooms that would be beautiful without stealing the show, “to keep the forms and the details as simple as possible, to make them kind of fade away as frames for the real place.” Accordingly, the plan simply does its job and gets out of the way. The main wing of the first floor contains the kitchen, dining and living areas, and a screened porch in a simple shoebox-shaped volume that reaches out toward the river. The floor above comprises a suite of bedrooms and a private sitting area that overlooks the living room. The intersecting wing holds a master suite on the first floor and a painting-studio loft reached by its own separate stair.
Interior details are elegantly spare. Walls, floors, and cabinet fronts are simple planes ordered by narrow reveals and free of applied trim. Natural materials—Brazilian cherry floors, beech cabinetry and wall panels—add warmth while remaining discreetly in the background. A ceiling surfaced with painted 1x1 slats in a washboard pattern drops down to subtly define the kitchen and dining area. This stylistic restraint, along with a careful filtering out of any sign of the neighboring houses, builds on the sense of quiet and privacy. Now that the house is completed, that is. During construction, a constant stream of curious neighbors trolled by to gawk at that local rarity, a real Modernist house.
“There are not a lot of those in Savannah,” explains custom builder Jim Turner, whose residential work generally follows a more traditionalist track. The novelty attracted Turner, too, as did the technical challenge. “When we first looked at it, it intrigued us,” he says. Responsibility for building the house fell to superintendent Tony Miller, whose experience in commercial construction only partly prepared him for the hide-nothing aesthetic of this project. “In every process, the steps you would do would be a little different,” he says, “even down to setting the doors.” A second-floor corridor wall made up largely of cabinetry and interior windows required that Miller set the doors before the wall itself was in place. “You don't put trim in before the Sheetrock. You put that in afterwards,” he jokes. But his pride in the finished product is unmistakable. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime job for me.”
As it must have been for Robinson. An architect's first house comes along only once, after all, and he pulled this one off in fine form. For his part, the architect gives credit to the client. “He was challenging. He had enough knowledge to be dangerous,” Robinson says. But the father, who had made his own career resurrecting historic structures, followed the son's lead to a very different kind of building. “I think the project stretched him, and I was amazed at the way he allowed himself to be stretched,” Robinson says. “There was a pretty significant leap of faith, which I appreciated.”