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.

| January/February 2005

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.

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