Architect: Thomas & Denzinger Architects, Charleston, SC  I  Photography: Greg Wilson

The Little Gasparilla Residence evolved from a desire for a densely planted retreat as a counterpoint to the homeowners’ northern urban residence. The family comes to the site through the busy streets of one of Florida’s small barrier islands, down a narrow private road, and into an open court enveloped in landscape.

Building on a sensitive and heavily regulated coastal site impelled the Landscape Architect to consider the potential environmental impacts of each design decision. Much of the site is protected and therefore not buildable; the interweaving of the architecture and exterior design in three dimensions affords the flexibility of multi-generational living and semi-private guest suites in a narrow and largely un-developable site.

Through collaboration with the Architect and Interior Designer, the landscape architecture balances lush sub-tropical plantings with openly defined spaces and creates a palpable sense of place.

Context and Site

The landscape architect initially worked with the architect to study what the idea of a retreat would mean in this site. On a sensitive coastal site with strict regulations setting the finished floor elevations of habitable spaces, and elevated living space was a given. The architect envisioned and elevated pool deck set between two residential pavilions as a Shangri-la-like space – the ultimate retreat.

As a continuation of the arrival sequence into the inner quiet of the private property, the Landscape Architect shaped the motor-court as a reflection of the front façade of the house. The linear callida limestone paving set in a permeable zoysia field reads less like a driveway, and more like a courtyard garden. The cadence set in the ground carries up the front screen walls of the house where the first hint of the elevated deck can be seen in the linear railings.

Initially a large invasive ficus benjamina occupied the south-eastern corner of the site. While its value for shade and protection from wind was evaluated, it encroached on the limited buildable area of the site and crowded the architecture. The tree was removed and the plant palette of the front was reconceived with respect to the owner’s vision and the regional microclimate. The tight side property lines are layered with salt- and wind-tolerant species, densely planted to screen out the too-close neighbors.

Rather than relegating the space below the house to parking and storage (for which it also serves), the light of the open sky is drawn down into the open-air foyer through a glass-bottomed pool. Shade loving vessel plantings and epiphytes attached to the delicate screen walls erase the boundaries between architecture and landscape.

The boardwalk – illuminated through the pool above – connects the Gulf of Mexico and the dune landscape – the “backyard” – to the front entry and motor court; it picks up again across the private road leading to an intercoastal lagoon. The light-filled space provides the needed storage and circulation for the homeowners’ rowing sculls and other recreational equipment and at the same time provides shaded outdoor living and work space.

Design Approach

With the idea that the elevated pool and main deck is always visible and accessible, the architectural, landscape, and water elements that infill the space between the pavilions were carefully coordinated. The materiality of the planters, pergolas, and other landscape elements was a part of not only the landscape architect’s palette, but also the interior designer’s. The formal, as well as the material, connectivity between inside and out, public and private, enhances the perception that this relatively compact site is an expansive and isolated retreat. Interior and exterior spaces are equally suited for cooking and dining, socializing, and even bathing and slumber, with a sleeping porch connected to the southwest master-suite.

Ecological Footprint and the Future

While the program and desired experience of this singular coastal site resulted in the most tactile aspects of the design, the ecological impact of developing the parcel was equally important to the design team and the owners. With the main structure inherently elevated, the solid footprint on the ground was already minimized. A majority of the site remained either untouched/supplemented, as with the native dune species at the west end, or permeable, as seen in the gravel under the house, and most prominently in the motor court. Here, a dense callida limestone, quarried from the center of the state, was set in a linear pattern to mimic the scale and language of the house. Between the stone pavers zoysia grass – a salt tolerant and fast-recovering species – was laid. The permeable alternate to a traditional driveway minimizes stormwater runoff and off-site impacts from development.

Below this exotic-looking ground plane is a 6,000 gallon cistern that collects the rainfall from the gutters and recirculates it to irrigate the planted areas. Without real estate for an above-ground storage tank, the most effective location for the water storage was several feet below the limestone-paved motor court, but above the naturally high water table.

Along with more common sustainable practices – the removal of all invasive plant species, the re-nourishment of the existing dune, and plant selection with respect to the harsh microclimate and future growth – the onsite water management strategies, though not visible to the eye, are key to the durability and preservation of this place for the next generations.