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The Quiet Architecture
A South Carolina firm provides the fabric of New Urbanism.
The southern coastal plain of South Carolina epitomizes how vernacular architecture is, above all else, a logical response to climate. It was there, amid the marshes and winding rivers and creeks from Charleston south to Savannah,
GA, that the simple, gracefully proportioned homes of the Low Country
vernacular evolved. Characterized by raised-pier foundations, extensive porches, wide overhangs, tall ceilings and high windows, Low Country structures function to counteract the long, hot summers characteristic of the region's humid subtropical climate.
The city of Beaufort, located midway between Charleston and Savannah, was
chartered by the British in 1711 and is brimming with historic forts, houses and plantations; in recent years, the Beaufort area has also become a hotbed of New Urbanist developments designed in keeping with the Low Country vernacular tradition. The development of Habersham, for instance, planned in 1997 by Miami, FL-based Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) and now substantially complete, has been lauded for helping to resuscitate the historic coastal town aesthetic. Habersham is also the home of Moser Design Group, which has helped developers make New Urbanist projects a reality since 1992.
Eric Moser grew up some 600 miles northwest of Beaufort in the west-central
Indiana town of Crawfordsville. Having descended from seven generations of farmers, he was instilled with a do-it-yourself work ethic, constructing his first building single-handedly at age 16. "I had the good fortune of learning many disciplines from my father," says Moser. "Early in my teen years, he starting developing a little building business; one of the things that I learned very quickly was that there was a gap between a design and the actual construction in the field. That was something that I didn't see a need for and endeavored to find a way to bridge that gap, feeling that I would ultimately work toward a design/build kind of company, simply because, to this day, I love to pack a hammer."
In the mid-1980s, after attending the University of Florida, Moser went to South Carolina to help an uncle build a house that Moser had designed while in college. During the course of putting that building together, he developed a few relationships and picked up some additional work. Before long, he had established a small business, which to this day is known as Moser Design Group, Inc. (MDG).
For a handful of years, MDG designed custom single-family resort architecture, which Moser describes as "oversized McMansion type" houses. The firm's focus shifted dramatically in 1992 when Moser met developer Bob Turner, who was considering a project in Beaufort called Newpoint. "He asked if I would like to engage in this relatively new development type called Traditional Neighborhood Develop-ment," says Moser. "The thing that really resonated with me was this was what I grew up in. At six years old, I would walk from our farmhouse on the edge of town to the grocery store. It was everything that the idea of traditional neighborhood building and New Urbanist projects are all about. It was revisiting the architecture that I had grown up in and loved – I'd had as much as I could stand of the stucco-box, mini-hotel resort architecture."
"With Newpoint, we learned that we really enjoy the planning process of New Urbanist projects," says Moser. "One of the wonderful things about it is that developers spend a tremendous amount of time, effort and money to make these really wonderful plans, and during the planning process, particularly in the early days, the planners and architects associated with the planning process would create this incredible imagery for architecture to fulfill the neighborhood character."
Moser quickly recognized that when the planning process was over, developers were left to their own devices to find architecture to fit the imagery that had been created. "It didn't exist – it simply wasn't out there," he says. "The days of the Sears kit homes were long gone. The abundance of traditional architecture also was absolutely not available in the marketplace. We recognized that we loved this stuff, and we wanted to endeavor to provide these buildings for these town founders to help fulfill these neighborhoods. So, as opposed to doing a lot of signature architecture, what we actually concentrate on and what we really endeavor to excel at is creating the background or fabric architecture for these neighborhoods."
Switching the firm's focus from custom architecture to providing fabric architecture for New Urbanist developments necessitated a complete re-tooling of MDG's business model. "Developers, by and large, don't want to, can't or won't pay for custom one-off architecture when you're talking about coming out of the box with 20, 30, 40 or 50 units," says Moser. "So I decided to develop 10 plans – each with three elevation options – that work within the general fabric and lot configuration of most traditional neighborhoods being planned. I did this on a speculative basis, and it took a tremendous amount of time and resources. As we began to get more involved with more town founders and had more built work, we had the opportunity as consultants, in working with developers within their new towns, to get at least partially funded for our design work for their particular buildings. And then we would continue to finish construction documents for these buildings for various New Urbanist projects, and as each one was finished – tested essentially – we would add it to our portfolio."
The Regional Vernacular
New Urbanism continues to grow because it revives traditional neighborhood structures, providing walkable, mixed-use communities composed of sustainable, regionally appropriate architecture. Moser says that his connection to New Urbanism was absolute and immediate because it revisits traditional forms; in southern coastal South Carolina, that means the Low Country vernacular. "The regional vernacular truly is about buildings that survive well within this climate –" says Moser, "being raised off the ground allows them to stay a little drier, stay away from insects and cool a little more easily; porches are oriented to passively control comfort through simple sun/shade mechanisms and extend houses outdoors to afford breezes; and tall ceilings and high windows allow heat to rise and escape.
"Yet they are generally very simple forms, even though they can get very elaborate within the range of the vernacular to the Classical detailing. Often the buildings are very elegant, and the proportions are, more often than not, exquisite – the proportions of these buildings are what create so much of their inherent beauty. If they get a little clumsy in some of the detailing, it actually makes them a little endearing. I'd rather them keep the important components, like beam and column alignments, component relationships and window and door proportions; if we can keep those in check, then people can actually get kind of funky. There is a tremendous amount of variety in the additive things that people have done over time – but the form, proportion and background is set."
Along with proper form and proportion, MDG has also increasingly focused on designing smaller, more efficient homes. "In the last 20 years with the whole McMansion notion, houses have continued to grow – everyone has to have their bowling alley and 15 places to eat," says Moser. "We focus on understanding traditional form within neighborhood fabric. There were only a few mansions in most towns – most buildings were relatively modest and simple in form, but still provided the spaces required for a large living program.
"The premise is that you can easily hold on to traditional form within a traditional fabric by simply breaking down the architecture, by focusing on the additive or generational growth of a building, which is how many buildings grew anyway. Most were relatively simple buildings that grew from generation to generation – it made a lot more sense to build independent, additive forms as opposed to completely deconstructing
New Urban Fabric
MDG's involvement with New Urbanism begins with charrettes, many of which stem
from Moser's involvement with the Miami, FL-based New Urban Guild (see "New
Urban Outfitters" in Period Homes, July 2006, page 6). During the charrette process, MDG assists in establishing the vocabulary of neighborhoods based on local vernacular. After the vocabulary has been established, the firm works to provide developers with actual designs that fill out the neighborhoods. "We're really about the composition of several buildings," says Moser. "It is the sidewalk wall, the quiet architecture of the neighborhood – the fabric is really what I'm proud of. I measure our success by the effective implementation of a neighborhood fabric."
MDG has been involved in more than 20 New Urbanist developments since Newpoint, the 54-acre development just across the Intracoastal Waterway from downtown Beaufort where 25 of the firm's designs have been realized. Soon after Newpoint, MDG became involved in an infill project in the nearby town of Port Royal, designing a dozen homes as part of the preservation and revitalization of the historic town according to a master plan by Coral Gables, FL-based Dover, Kohl & Partners. In 1997, a simultaneous planning and architectural charrette was held for Habersham. Today, Habersham, where over 50 of MDG's designs have been built, illustrates Moser's commitment to the New Urbanist movement: Moser has lived there for seven years, shares an office in the town center with Brown Design Studio and participates in the town architect duties.
"One of the things that I love so much about New Urbanism is that the charrette process is one of the very few instances in architecture where there is a true collaboration amongst the designers, and we all understand that every place is better with a mixed hand," he says. "It provides authenticity, and what we all endeavor to create is an authentic place, a real sense of place. And that can never be done with one hand."
Beyond the Beaufort area, MDG has also done significant work in and around Charleston, as well as in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri and Florida. In July 2004, Moser, along with four other members of the New Urban Guild, participated in a charrette
for the town of Lost Rabbit, MS, creating French Colonial, Classical Raised Cottage and Greek Revival homes for the DPZ-planned development. A year later, Moser would return to Mississippi as a member of the Mississippi Renewal architectural team that worked to rebuild the towns of the Gulf Coast devastated by Hurricane Katrina. "During that process, we came to understand that those people would need help and they would need help for a very long time," says Moser. "It was interesting because it was a process of trying, on a massive scale, to do what I had been doing all along – the fabric buildings. We were tying to get people back into their homes, to give them back their heritage and not force them into the architecture of the 20th century that has devastated so many communities.
"It fit right in with what we've been doing for years, completely reinforcing what we do. The idea of designing to essential needs first, designing houses that grow, designing fabric – it's just such a great fit. It's been incredibly rewarding."
Four of MDG's 12 Katrina Cottage designs are currently available in Mississippi and Louisiana through the home-improvement store Lowe's. All are less than 700 sq.ft. – diminutive compared to the custom houses Moser designed in the mid 1980s. "One of the things that I've enjoyed is designing efficiencies into plans," he says. "After having designed quite large, oversized houses, I really enjoy the challenge of designing as much efficiency into buildings as I can. It's about designing without redundancies and maximizing buildings so we actually use the spaces that we design, and designing flexibility in for the occasional requirement."
Although it has been a large endeavor for MDG to get the material packages together and ready for the commercial market, the Katrina Cottage process has gotten Moser thinking about alternate housing options and manufacturing processes. "During the first hour of the Mississippi Renewal Forum," he says, "I had great fun de-signing little kit buildings, which are 15x18-ft. models that can be plugged together in any direction and can be stick-built or panelized. It's a format that I'm still pursuing – the goal is to get a core house completed with available resources that can grow over time.
"Pre-fabricated construction is something that is very important to continue to promote and refine. We have a long road to go down. The manufacturing industry as a whole has concentrated on a completely different set of priorities in their business model than what we have concentrated on. It's more than shelter that we are trying to provide – it's a building to love, and something that is permanent, and making that transition between a manufactured house that is a good basic shelter and one that becomes a building of permanence and pride has been difficult."
True to Vernacular Form
As a byproduct of a business model geared to providing plans for New Urbanist developments, MDG also offers plans to the general public. There are currently more than 75 for sale in the firm's Traditional Neighborhood Homes Series, ranging from 1,100-sq.ft. bungalows to 3,000-sq.ft. manors. "Essentially, we felt that if we could take this one step further," he says, "even though there would be some ill-fated results, if we could, as a whole – not just me, but as a group of traditional designers and architects – provide the general market with a better form of architecture, at least a traditional form of architecture, then we would be doing good. That was our resolve. There may be some consequences in trying to do this, but if we can provide a better architecture for the general public, then it is worth the pain of seeing a building botched."
Selling plans to the general public means that modifications will be re-quested, no small endeavor for a six-person firm like MDG. "At first, we would make modifications, but it became frustrating because we were asked to do things that we didn't believe in or did not believe were effective for the buildings," says Moser. "So then we went the route of saying we'd only do modifications if they improve the building. Then we finally got to the point where we decided we were better off allowing purchasers to make modifications to our designs and have them done locally, because they'd have a local hand as opposed to us not completely understanding the context that the building is supposed to fit into."
That the plans are simple in design, massing and detailing increases the likelihood they will be realized. "Our construction documents are very intuitive and the buildings are true to vernacular form," says Moser. "We're trying to help rediscover the fact that buildings were built based on the premise of need and available resources. The premise was to provide buildings with good bones that allow the expression of local vernacular when they are out of our hands. Our feeling was that if we tried to elaborate too much with these buildings, they wouldn't get built."
In the spirit of the Low Country vernacular tradition, MDG also strives to design for the long term, specifying durable materials. "One of the things that we recognized with traditional buildings, particularly with some of the building components and trims, is that much of the material that these buildings were based on doesn't exist anymore," says Moser. "So when we endeavored to create buildings that emulate these traditional buildings, we had to find materials that would last and that were sustainable. We do use fiber-cement materials, we do use fiberglass composite and we also use some cellular PVC – these are components that don't necessarily fall under the sustainability guide, but they will last for a very long time."
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