The impacts of climate change are seemingly inescapable as demonstrated by the recent tragic fires in California and the devastation by hurricane Michael in the Florida panhandle and Mexico Beach. I found myself wondering about how this will affect the built environment in terms of where we build homes, how we design them, and the materials we will use. Eventually, I thought about a luxury beach home I photographed about four years ago in the Sunset Estates neighborhood of Alys Beach, located just west of Panama City Beach, Florida, on the panhandle. This home was designed to withstand tropical storms and maybe hurricanes, and I wondered how it fared with Michael.
I called the architect, Arthur Dyson of Fresno, California, and he reported he got a preliminary report indicating that it is standing unscathed amid closed roads, downed trees, and damaged neighboring homes.
I have known Dyson and photographed his work for over 35 years and before he became, well, famous and a gold-medal winner. Often when people describe him they begin with the past: he was the youngest apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright; he studied and worked with William Gray Purcell of Purcell & Elmslie; and he studied with Bruce Goff (who is worthwhile looking up if you are an architecture enthusiast and are unfamiliar with him and his work).
What is far more interesting to me is how much ahead of his time Dyson has been for designing for people’s lifestyles (including some forward-reaching projects for farm workers in California’s Central Valley) and the climate. Since the beginning of his long career and well before any green building movement, he has oriented buildings according to the patterns of the sun’s movements, created overhangs to prevent heat gain and glare, introduced measures to minimize energy use, and has innovated and repurposed materials. In the case of the Alys Beach home, he planned for tropical storms and hurricanes in his 1999 design well before the increase in hurricane intensity had been observed and documented.
The 9,500-square-foot main home is located on the beach just behind a low dune on about two acres with a second family home (also designed by Dyson) located just to the east with a pool and patios between. Anticipating a storm surge and its retreat, 50-foot deep concrete pylons support the 12-inch slab concrete of the home, so it is essentially on a pier. Should sand and soil be sucked away with incoming or outgoing surges, the home should still stand. Steel dipped in galvanized zinc frame the poured-in-place concrete curvilinear walls. A structural engineer worked closely with Dyson on the design to verify the strength. The curves serve to create an aerodynamic flow environment for winds, and the domed roof has one-third of the drag as a gabled roof. The roof finish is an adhesive elastomeric product, so there are no pieces of roof to become flying missiles.
A house on a desirable stretch of beach calls for glass. This home has both green and blue glass (selected to cut down the UV rays and heat gain) assembled in two layers with plastic between. It was designed and tested for a 165-miles-per-hour impact load either from the inside or out. Instead of steel mullions, Dyson innovated three-quarter-inch glass fins fitted with steel to add strength.
While this description sounds like a fortress, the open home has decks and glass doors connecting to the salt water pools where the thatched roof bar and cabana anchor an outdoor entertainment area designed to comfortably host an annual charity party of 250 outside (I know; I was there). Unseen are the components of the geothermal heat exchange system that lower energy demand.
The main interior living spaces are suspended like pods in the concrete, and a glass stairway with floating treads and planters break up the space. The native Floridian owners love bringing foliage inside.
The ellipses in the exterior geometry repeat in the interior, as illustrated by the play on the forms in the kitchen counters and cabinetry. I understand that the cabinets are a point of workers’ pride.
Watching increases in weird extreme weather makes me feel grief for the planet’s more regular and predictable patterns of the past and for the tragic losses people are experiencing. If I remember the lesson on the stages of grief, the first is denial. It seems time to move forward from denial to action. While this is a luxury home with a greater budget to build to resist storm devastation than most have, it is still an example of taking action. I hope I will be seeing more actions and photographing them. When I do, I will share them with you.
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