Lowcountry architecture is like none other
Story by Lisa Allen + Photography by John McManus
Drive past homes on Hilton Head and in Bluffton and there is something that exudes Lowcountry. Sure, the scent of pluff mud adds to the ambiance, but it’s the homes that set the scene. What is it about the homes here? Why are they so different from those in Ohio, New York or Florida? Is it the shutters? The metal roofs? The immense front porches? Frankly, my dear, yes.
There are good reasons and some interesting stories that surround our local architecture.
Our founding white settlers were a little competitive. They borrowed from Georgian, Neo-classical and Greek Revival architecture to create huge homes that boldly stated their status and wealth. They could build those large ego monuments at a discount because the labor was free. Their slaves built them.
Next, in case you haven’t noticed, the heat and humidity make it a little stuffy in the summer.
To enjoy the slightest breeze long before air conditioning, houses and gardens were designed to capture even the tiniest puff of air.
Lowcountry homes typically have large, symmetrical porches with three to five bays and a centered front door. They allowed people to relax while enjoying shade and pleasant breezes. The same holds true today.
Metal roofs were and remain popular because they don’t absorb as much heat as asphalt shingles and last a lot longer in our warm, humid climate. Because they are interlocking, they can withstand more wind.
Planting large trees in the right locations blocked direct sun exposure to the home, providing shade that helped indoor living areas stay more comfortable during the warmest parts of the year. Landscapers planted deciduous trees that would grow quite tall on the east, west, and northwest sides of the house. Climbing vines were also planted around a home to provide natural shade. Varieties such as Virginia creeper and ivy grew quickly, instantly shading exterior walls from direct sun exposure. The vines also worked to reduce temperature fluctuations in the home throughout the day. Elaborate, geometric gardens mirrored the symmetrical, boxlike dimensions of the manors. All of those reasons for large trees and gardens still apply.
Imposing, elevated homes
Houses were elevated on columns so air could circulate underneath the house, which subtracted a degree or two. It also made them look beefier, adding status. Today, homes are elevated to keep them above possible storm surges.
Louvered shutters could be pulled to block out direct sun, thereby shading interiors. The slats still permitted air flow. Shutters also provided protection from high winds. Today, impact-rated glass and metal panels provide hurricane protection, making shutters more decorative than functional.
Common features of Lowcountry architecture included enormous foyers, sweeping open stairways, ballrooms, grand dining rooms and intricate design work. Design work included intricate shapes and patterns made from plaster and floor designs using a collection of wood or tiles.
Inhabitants were desperate to contain rising interior temperatures throughout the day, so they built tall houses in the path of prevailing winds with a lot of windows. Using what was called “window tuning,” homeowners would determine which way the wind was blowing that day and open windows accordingly. The lower pane of windows facing the wind were open a little and upper panes of the windows on the opposite side of the house were open a lot, creating a draft and thus a breeze. In order for this to work, houses had to be big. They also built interior walls parallel, not perpendicular, to the prevailing winds so that air wouldn’t get trapped from flowing from one room to the next. Today, double-hung windows are a distinctive feature of local architecture, but when it’s hot, we just turn up the air conditioning.
The swinging window or panel above doors allowed for more air movement between rooms. Today, it provides another peek at our beautiful view. “Transoms were often used over doors to provide additional natural light and ventilation, while now they are often used to maximize views, particularly on the rear of the homes,” said Amanda Lamb, director of design for architecture firm Court Atkins Group in Bluffton. “Everyone wants the look of floor to ceiling glass.”
Not only did the large scale of the plantation homes make a statement, they also kept things a bit cooler at floor level because warm air rises. Today, tall ceilings are key components to an airy, open floor plan.
Thick exterior walls
Exterior walls were often made of stone, brick and sometimes tabby, a cement made from oyster shells. Walls were sometimes 12-inches to 24-inches thick to keep interior temperatures from rising through the day. Modern construction typically uses lumber only 4- or 6-inches thick for exterior walls.
Cooking on a hot summer day was even less appealing in days before air conditioning. Thus, many plantation homes built outdoor kitchens, called summer kitchens. Often, they were freestanding structures away from the main house. Today, outdoor kitchens are growing in size and popularity. “Rear porches have also evolved into much larger spaces to accommodate outdoor living, from entertaining around the fireplace to dining and cooking,” Lamb said.
Haint blue porch ceilings
Explanations as to why range from fooling spiders and wasps, thinking the ceiling is the sky, blue being a harbinger of good luck, the color extending daylight or scaring away evil spirits. In South Carolina, blue porch ceilings originated out of the fear of haints. “Haints are restless spirits of the dead who, for whatever reason, have not moved on from their physical world,” said Lori Sawaya, a color strategist who works with Sherwin-Williams. Haint blue can also be found on door and window frames as well as porch ceilings. It is intended to protect the homeowner from being “taken” or influenced by haints. Believe one reason or another, but break out the blue paint to be on the safe side.