A Southern beach house eight miles from Charleston becomes an eco-friendly home away from home.
Rives and Wally Yost had spent many summers on the beaches near Charleston, South Carolina, where Wally had family ties, but the Pittsburgh residents had never been quite satisfied with the houses they rented. The homes were clustered too close together, thirsty lawns replaced natural vegetation, and energy-inefficient designs demanded constant air conditioning. “When you walked outside, the first thing you heard was the drone of air conditioners,” recalls Wally. Adds Rives: “The houses had wall-to-wall carpeting, fireplaces, mirrored walls, too much furniture, and no clotheslines. I kept thinking I’d like to build a proper beach house.”
In 1999, when the couple and their teenage children, Robin and Lottie, were summering on Isle of Palms, northeast of Charleston, they spotted a sign for Dewees Island. They discovered a small boat landing and a guide who offered to show them the island. Soon they were aboard a ferry gliding through the Intracoastal Waterway. After passing a coastline densely studded with large houses, the ferry moved into an open inlet. The water spread wide, the sky became vast, shore birds soared overhead, and porpoises breached the waves. Small hummocks covered with bright-green sea grass punctuated the waterscape, their edges patrolled by lanky white egrets fishing in tidal pools.
Once docked at Dewees Island, the Yosts discovered a “green” community founded in 1991 by visionary developer John Knott. With only 150 home sites allowed on its 1,206 acres, 92 percent of the island is protected from development. Houses can be no larger than 5,000 square feet, must be set well back from the shoreline, and cannot disturb natural wetlands. Lawns are not permitted, protected trees cannot be cut, and only native plants may be cultivated. No cars are allowed on the sand roads, which are traveled by foot, bicycles, and electric golf carts. Building guidelines recommend the use of durable, energy-efficient materials and site planning that takes advantage of prevailing winds and avoids overexposure to the sun.
“We weren’t really looking for beach property,” Wally recalls, “but when we saw this place and learned about the protective covenants and overall approach to development, we thought it was just too good to be true. Two days later, we owned a lot.”
The Yosts’s property had been overlooked by several potential buyers because it was so densely grown with oaks. A wetland further diminished the buildable area, but Wally paced across the plot, looking up and envisioning a house built among the trees. Their architect, Charleston-based modernist Whitney Powers, understood the family’s dream of a house nestled into the natural landscape. “They didn’t want a beach decoration,” she notes.
Taking inspiration from an ancient cleft dune that runs through the property, Powers designed a 2,700-square-foot (3,100 square feet with the two sleeping lofts included) house composed of two halves shifted slightly away from each other and joined by a transparent stair hall. This design reflects the line of the broken dune, accommodates the surrounding trees, and breaks up the home’s mass, making it appear smaller than it is. Covered with gray wooden clapboard siding and topped with a standing-seam metal roof that reflects the sky, the house disappears into the landscape. “I have this vision that once the trees are completely matured, you will just see a mound of live oaks with a roof that peaks out among the leaves,” Wally muses.
Rives’s original idea for the house was inspired by old-fashioned southern vernacular beach cottages with wraparound porches, but the design the family finally agreed on married modern elements, including soaring ceilings and plate-glass walls, with traditional elements such as double-hung, wood-frame windows; sleeping porches; and ceiling fans. The family asked Powers to design plenty of storage space and include simple built-in furniture in the bedrooms to keep clutter to a minimum. The resulting spare interior in a palette of white and light-colored wood does little to compete with the views outside the many windows.
“This house is not about being on the outside looking in, but being on the inside looking out,” says Rives, whose favorite vantage points are the house’s eight screened porches. These porches open off the living room, the connecting open-plan kitchen, the multi-use dining room and home office area, all four bedrooms, and even the laundry room. “It’s nice to have a screened porch where I can hang the laundry without being bitten by mosquitoes,” says Rives, who once got into trouble for hanging towels out to dry in a beach resort that banned outdoor clotheslines.
Rooms with Views
Wally’s preferred point of view is a small roof-level terrace reached by climbing an aluminum ladder to one of the house’s two lofts, then crawling through a window that overlooks a canopy of maritime forest to the silvery line of the beach. Powers’s design provides several areas for surveying the surroundings, including an open-air pavilion reached by a twenty-five-yard pedestrian bridge that zigzags through the oaks and palmetto trees.
This perch commands a view of the ocean, a wetland, and a sun-bleached dead tree where an osprey nests each year. While the large living room/kitchen area offers plenty of room to spread out and read, play games, or just look out the windows, this outdoor room offers a private escape. It’s a favorite getaway for the entire Yost family; in fact, Lottie often takes a sketchbook with her. “You can reach out and touch the trees on all four sides,” Wally says. Viewed from this perspective at night, the house glows softly, its largest room lit by sconces that illuminate the natural wood ceiling without dispersing enough light to impact area wildlife.
By day, the house requires little artificial lighting. “We built the house to face east, so the morning light is spectacular,” says Wally, who also loves the diffuse golden rays that fill the rooms in late afternoon. No curtains are necessary, thanks to the leafy branches of live oak trees that also provide cooling shade. With high ceilings, ceiling fans, and plentiful French doors and sash windows that are usually thrown open, there is little need for air conditioning. “We didn’t come all the way from Pittsburgh to close the windows and doors,” says Rives.
“One of the first things you notice when you come to this house is the ambient sound,” says Wally. “You hear the birds, the ocean, and the wind.” When all the windows are open and the ceiling fans are on, the wind practically roars through the house. “You feel like you’re living half inside and half outside,” says Rives. “You can’t really tell where you are.”
What makes this house green?
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