The Carolina Lowcountry is blessed with a rich history, natural beauty and a distinctive architectural character. You know when you are here, we have live oaks, marshes, fresh shrimp and big porches. Thats how most people would start to characterize the Lowcountry. The architecture here didn’t just randomly happen, a distinctive architecture is the result of climatic characteristics, local materials and construction methods, and local cultural patterns.
When you have a true distinctive architecture, it is tied very much to a place or region. You can not for example, mistake the French Quarter of New Orleans for anywhere else in the world. Importing architecture or promoting non-regional materials or patterns is one of the worst things you can do as it erodes the true nature of a place. Other areas of the world share a hot and humid climate but they will typically have some differences in the cultural patterns or local materials. One only has to look at the differences in Lowcountry architecture and the architecture of Spanish Florida, they share some traits but are distinctively different. You will never confuse the core of St. Augustine with the core of Beaufort but you might confuse the uniformly bland sprawl of I-285 in Atlanta with the uniformly bland sprawl of Rt. 278.
The Lowcounty is primarily made up of villages and towns but we are blessed with two of the greatest cities in North America, Charleston and Savannah. Both of these are true urban cities and you will see the architectural character adapt as it also responses to the urban environment a little differently than it would in a rural setting. So while a townhouse might be a little different than a rural river house, you will still see many of the same traits in them. This is actually one of the hallmarks of a true distinct architecture, it transforms / adapts over the exact place it is put and it will adapt over time as well.
In the Lowcountry, its is hot and humid here. Our average summer temperature is high 80’s and 90’s with the humidity nearly the same. Prior to the invention of mechanically cooled buildings, heat and air comfort was one of the greatest challenges a Lowcountry building would have to face. The typical Lowcounty home has five design responses to deal the hot humid climate here; 1) a raised living level / foundation, 2) A single room depth, 3) Oriented toward breezes, 4) Porches, 5) High Ceilings and Windows.
Raising the main living level up has many benefits and can be seen from simple rural cottages to urban buildings. For a typical house, the raised pier foundation is typical and ranges from 32”up to a near full story. This will provide cooling breezes under the main house which will help with clearing the heat of the day and also helping to capture the breezes a little off the ground. Additionally, this will protect against flooding from storms and helps with insects, pests and dirt/dust. Its important to remember that your windows & doors would be assumed to be open. In a more urban setting, you will often see the lower level used for business or service uses which will mitigate the cooling but also provide additional security from the street.
Getting air movement through each room, or cross ventilation, is a key concern and having a single room depth is the easiest way to do so. Rooms vent best when they have openings on two sides or walls and having a single room depth lets you have venting options if the breeze shifts or a hallway door is shut. Some houses will be a true single room depth such as a Charleston Single or others will be a more complex form of single rooms such as the Beaufort “T” house.
Orientation to the prevailing breeze is an important consideration and works in conjunction with the single room depth to provide natural cooling and cross ventilation. Generally, this simply means that the house is oriented for the breeze to hit the wide part of the form, whether its the tip of the Beaufort “T” or the long end of the Charleston single. A unique lowcountry feature is that our buildings will rotate to capture the breeze regardless of how they sit on their lot. This means a house who’s primary street is on the north side of the house will “face” the opposite way, although it may still have an entry on the north side. The houses of the villages and towns will rotate at will while the urban grid of Savannah demands a little more conformity and Charleston is a mix of both, its street pattern bending to the breeze while the houses also will rotate.
What is more Lowcountry than porches? Well Southern might be a better term as most of the south uses porches as a climatic response tool. Porches, in either single or double form, provide sunshade from the hot summer sun directly entering your home. Indirect light still reflects into the interior but you are spared most of the heat gain. The more open porches also typically will have a great breeze (especially the upper ones) and thus actually function best for outdoor living and sleeping in the evening hours. This trait also combines with the Orientation trait as these porches must face either south or west to provide the shading benefit. If you see a porched house sitting “sideways” to a great water view or frontage, then this is why.
Once you have captured the breeze, you have to now make sure that it can be brought through the building. High ceilings help with this by allowing higher windows and doors which allow a great opening area. The higher ceilings will also allow the hottest air to rise up and keep sitting height a little cooler. The double hung window is also part of this conversation as it allows great ventilation of hotter air via the top sash while the lower sash lets in cooler air.
Local Materials and Traditions: The Lowcountry is a region rich in natural beauty and natural resources but not much in terms of natural building materials. Local materials define the core vocabulary for a distinctive architecture. How the local craftsmen use them is another way.
Traditionally, the Lowcountry has been a composed of the smaller scale villages and towns. In these smaller, more loosely organized places, the dominate construction material has been wood. Heart Pine and cypress form the backbone of local easy to find and use materials from the earliest times. Both of these woods are tolerant to the humid climate here and the local craftsmen knew how frame it using there strength of the wood. Thus most of the housing stock and much of the village main center will be wood frame and siding. Many houses would have cypress or pine interiors with the level of refinement and detail based on the formality and cost of the home. Douglass Fir or Brazilian Cherry are not local woods and thus not part of the local vocabulary.
Tabby was a local material here that made use of the local sand and oyster shell to form a concrete like material used for foundations and walls. Tabby was an imported cultural material from Spanish Florida but was then embraced and made part of the Lowcounty vocabulary. Tabby is mostly forgotten now as concrete technology has moved on but this is an excellent example how a distinctive architecture evolves over time and incorporates nearby cultural influences.
Brick is a great building material that makes use of local clay for its core. Brick color will vary based upon the type of clay used it, a brick from Texas Hill County is a different color than a brick from Upstate South Carolina. Brick was an imported material for a long time here in the Lowcounty with Plantations slowly developing a series of kilns for there own use and a later market in the cities of Charleston and Savannah. Brick made from local clay is a Lowcounty material but it is typically used on larger buildings or in more urban areas (early firecodes required brick walls). Plaster and Stucco were often used to finish some of the rather crude handmade bricks for either interior or exterior finishes.
The Lowcounty does not have naturally occurring stone at all. Stone is an imported material which is difficult to cut, store and ship so it was reserved for the most important civic buildings such as churches or town halls. Some of the wealthy planters would import British stone for their personal homes but it a rare use. In all cases, the building was formal so the stone work was well cut and dressed.
Traditionally, the ports of the Lowcountry have served ships from all over the world. This access to the world has allowed building materials to also flow here. Charleston and Savannah have ballast stone/brick streets and both also feature imported mass produced iron and mill work in the Industrial Age, although Charleston did develop a great iron working tradition locally, all the iron was made in the northeast or England. An interesting item to note here is the evolution of the Lowcounty style. You will see a change in buildings as a certain style was in fashion, such as the Romantic styles of the late 19th century. There are many homes that are built to core Lowcountry characteristics that will have Victorian mill work for example and many streets allow you to see the same type of house (say a Charleston single for example) that will bridge many decades and several styles. A distinct architecture is not a style.
The local traditions of construction also very much shape a distinct architecture. Many parts of the the northeast have strong traditions in ship building and you will see that reflected in how early wood frame houses were framed. Here we have a tradition of rural vernacular construction methods mixed with the more formal methods found mostly in the larger downtown cores. That range defines that Lowcountry Vocabulary. A porch may be a post and beam or it may be a more refined column and trimmed beam. A distinctive architecture has a range to it, it is not a singular solution generally.
Local Cultural Patterns: Culture drives much of what we do, who we are and how we do things and that is very true for the Lowcountry. The Lowcountry has a rich history of European people exploring and founding early settlements here dating back to the 16th century. This European culture has given the area its primary pattern of settlement and its primary pattern of architecture, at least until the Machine Age. With a few exceptions, the Lowcountry was founded by the British, Carolina being a Royal Colony. This means that the building patterns and proportions were brought from England, Scotland, Bermuda and Barbados.
These founding British core brought with them the design languages and patterns from Robert Adam, Vitruvius Britannia and other works. These in turn owe their allegiance back to the early work of Vitruvius and his famous, Ten Books of Architecture. All these patterns reference classical proportions that are derived from human and natural form. Vitruvius and his much earlier greek predecessors, take their proportioning system from the Golden Mean or what is in all natural things and apply it to their architecture. Thus, a classical column has the proportion of a human body and a classical window has the proportions of the human body also. We humans tend to respond well to these proportions, we are wired that way and thus most people will enjoy well proportioned architecture. (even if they can not articulate why).
These proportions and patterns are in the core of the Lowcountry architectural DNA. They have evolved over time but the core human based proportions remained until the Machine Age which changed the proportioning systems to one of Industry not Man. A horizontal Modernist window from 1971 feels stale next to the grace of a double hung of 1848 and proportion is why.
The Lowcounty is also unique in having multiple cultural influences on it. As a distinctive architecture can and will evolve over time, you can see that effect of these cultural assimilations. We have mentioned the effect the Spanish Floridian architecture had after the British has stormed St. Augustine in 1702. Also note that traditional color of a porch ceiling, Haint Blue, a Gullah superstition about spirits.
The Lowcountry is a special unique place in the world. There are places that are similar to it, but none that match it in all aspects of what makes this a great or unique place. The premise of this essay is that every place has a distinctive architecture to it (or should, sometimes they are lost) and the Lowcounty certainly has a distinctive architecture to it. These distinctive characteristics become the DNA or vocabulary for that place. These characteristics come from the triad of climatic characteristics, local materials and construction methods, and local cultural patterns. The result is a set of architectural massing & forms (floor plans for the layman), materials and construction methods that make up the buildings that define the Lowcountry. This distinctive architecture becomes, as defined by Steve Mouzon, a “Living Tradition” and will evolve and adapt over time and is not static.
While the Lowcountry Architecture will evolve over time, it’s core DNA should be protected here. You can not import another DNA, from say Tuscany Italy, for example and expect that to not look very fake or cartoon like. Nor can you import a generic corporate architecture Atlanta and expect it to enhance the sense of place here. Each time we bring in foreign DNA, we allow a piece of what is special here to be lost. Each generic building brings us one step closer to a generic place and its a slow but steady march to get there and there are great easy alternatives that allow growth and allow each new building to contribute to the growth of the sense of what the Lowcounty is.
All photos by the author.
Partial Additional Reading List:
The Old Way of Seeing: How Architecture Lost its Magic. Jonathan Hale, Mariner Books, 1995.
The Original Green: Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability. Steve Mouzon, The New Urban Guild Foundation, 2010.
A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Christopher Alexander, 1977.
The Architecture of Community. Leon Krier, Island Press, 2009.