Mother Earth Living

Paradise Found: A Green Home in the Florida Keys

A pair of artists and their daughters live and work in a sturdy, passively cooled beach house in the Florida Keys. This truly is paradise.
By Trish Riley
January/February 2005
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Imagine living in a house that is part vintage Red Cross emergency housing, part modern pottery studio and fully integrated into—and respectful of—its wild surroundings.
Photos by Bill Sanders
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Florida’s Keys are a quirky, hundred-mile archipelago stretching south from the mainland, a curving divide between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Reaching almost to Cuba, the string of islands basks in the warmth of the subtropical sun and sparkling crystal blue waters verging into the Caribbean Sea. Once you find your way down the long, meandering road that links them together, it can be hard to turn around on U.S. Highway 1 and make your way back to civilization.

Enchanted with the islands’ balmy charm, New York ceramists Beth Kaminstein and Ron Levy staked a claim on their own slice of paradise in the late 1980s. They bought oceanfront property in Islamorada on Upper Matecumbe Key, nearly 100 miles south of Miami. Nestled among palms on the coral shoreline was a vintage cottage built by the Red Cross as emergency housing after the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. The sturdy structure was built with concrete to withstand future storms. Three-quarters of a century later, the strategy proves sound. But with the addition of two daughters to the family—Brieze, now fourteen, and Stellar, twelve—the family needed more space.

They discovered Jersey Devil architects while browsing design magazines. They liked the designers’ philosophy of creating buildings that live and work in harmony with their surroundings, using “honest” materials, and putting as little strain on the earth as possible. They were especially taken with Jersey Devil’s use of windows to capture prevailing winds instead of air conditioning. “We liked the idea of using passive cooling design. We thought it could work well here,” says Ron. “We wanted to make this a Florida house, more open than closed up. We wanted to enjoy the sense of being here.”

The principals of Jersey Devil—a Princeton-trained team that has gained fame as nomads who live onsite in Airstream trailers throughout the planning and development of most of their projects—were fatefully close at hand. Steve Badanes, an architecture professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, was coincidentally the friend of a friend; Jim Adamson lived nearby in Homestead, Florida.

“The couple wanted a work/live space that was comfortable, passively cooled, and in a setting they enjoy,” says Badanes. “This is a trend. People want to be able to work and live at home, without air conditioning.”

To meet Beth and Ron’s needs, Badanes and Adamson designed a separate building with a pottery studio downstairs and bedrooms above. An open-air, two-story breezeway and bridge connects the new two-story building with the small cottage, which was renovated to include a family room, office, kitchen, and dining area. Three rolling garage doors open on either side of the studio, where Beth sculpts and fires ceramic pots and platters, providing cross-ventilation from the sea through the narrow property and into a native hardwood and tropical forest. This lush grove of gumbo-limbo, red bananas, carambola, pomelo, and other fruit trees shields the house from the touristy highway and lends fragrance to the breeze.

Jersey Devil helped achieve the couple’s desire for a true beach home. “Sometimes when a squall comes up, we feel like we’re living on a boat,” says Ron. “The oceanfront is why we chose the site, and the house really relates to it. Being able to see sunrise and moonrise through the bedroom windows is really very special.”

Beth is also convinced the location benefits their daughters. “I love the physical freedom and connection to nature they have,” she says. “We see dolphins frequently, and when we do, we know it’s a lucky day. They’re magical.”

With Islamorada’s temperature averaging 76 degrees Fahrenheit, most residents rely on air conditioning, but Ron and Beth avoid using theirs in the new wing, which is lifted off the ground and into the treetops, and capitalize instead on ocean breezes. Windows make up the oceanside wall of each bedroom, with sliding glass doors opening onto a balcony overlooking the sea. The windows are hinged at the top and flip open to protect from incoming rain. A long, broad overhang keeps solar heat from penetrating the home through the windows. The interior walls of the girls’ rooms don’t reach quite to the ceiling, which allows air to circulate more effectively through the space, and closet doors are vented with louvers and grills to prevent moisture accumulation, mildew growth, and musty odors. Four ceiling fans keep the air moving, and the concrete walls and floor help keep temperatures cool. The roof is constructed of reflective Galvalume steel, under which Badanes and Adamson installed a radiant foil barrier over fiberglass insulation. A ridge vent in the roof allows an exit for heat trapped beneath the roof surface.

Linking the old and new wings of the house is a three-story stair tower. Galvanized with partially recycled steel, the structure stands as an imposing sentinel over the property. Sheltering the hand-carved, curved-wood staircase, the tower opens to a balcony at the top of the stairs, providing an observation deck. A covered bridge leads to a porthole door to the bedrooms.

In keeping with the breeze-is-all theme, the tower is supported by a pair of vertical columns made to resemble bicycle chains, using six-inch aluminum pipe sections between wood two-by-twelves. Air and light can pass through the columns, which Beth calls “lipstick columns” because they’re painted bright fuchsia.

The tower’s two lower stories are constructed of cool, sturdy concrete (mixed with some potash), with wooden-frame third-story walls. Corrugated steel covers the exterior, providing protection from rain and airborne salt; it also reflects heat and sun. Both the steel and the concrete are durable materials that meet the family’s criteria for a low-maintenance design.

“The home is naturally ventilated so they needn’t rely on air conditioning, an attainable but seldom-seen strategy in South Florida,” Adamson concludes.

What makes this home green?

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