In the beginning…

I’d liked to say I played with Fröbel Gifts in my German kindergarten like Frank Lloyd Wright.  Instead I played with LEGOs.

Or that I was awed by the Acropolis in Athens when I was five.  Actually I was just looking for the lost button from my little blue “reefer” blazer.

But I think it was staying with my grandparents in Live Oak, Florida, that started my love of buildings.  They had a classic four-square Cracker house with a tin roof that they built themselves after clearing a place in the piney woods.  It had a dirt yard, chickens, hogs, cows, sugar cane (for cane syrup), and tobacco.

I loved hearing the sound of rain on that tin roof.  The rooms were tall, as were the double-hung windows.  Grandpa and Grandma would rock in matching chairs on the front porch while the family sat all around. We listened to crickets, watched the heat lightning in the distance and caught lightning bugs in the woods next to the house. Here’s my Grandpa sitting in one of his favorite positions.

Grandpa on the porchI struggled with my Master’s degree thesis, going through a highly detailed and an exhaustingly researched premise that architecture could solve cabin fever in hostile environments (space, undersea and Antarctica).  Much as I enjoyed the research, it would have needed at least five books to do it justice and I was interested in graduating.  I briefly considered an urban planning concept that transformed the surburbs into walking areas with mingled work places and homes (this was pre-Seaside and New Urbanism).

However what I settled on was a design concept that I did for a class project.  The project used an international housing competition for the design parameters and requirements (easier than coming up with one from scratch). The goal was a 1,200 SF home that could be built for under $75,000.

The trend to strange modern houses with weirdly pitched roofs did nothing for me.  I wanted to capture the Cracker house that meant so much to me.  The Cracker style is called “vernacular” because it was designed without architects, based on generational cultural memory.  It’s complicated.  You can rent my thesis from the University of Florida if you need a cure for insomnia.

I also liked modular designs that could grow according to the needs of the homeowner.  I came up with an 862 SF base module that contained the basic required spaces:  living room, dining room, kitchen, laundry, master bedroom and master bath.  I opted for a two-story house to minimize the footprint and maximize the use of the land.  Then I added a double-bedroom module that also included a shared bath.  This brought the square footage to just under 1,200 SF (1,198 SF).  To keep costs down, I did not include a garage.

I designed the house so that it could be combined into zero lot line houses, multifamily units or townhouses.  And I had versions that could further expand the house into 1,728 SF “Plantation” style (wrap-around porch), 2,065 SF expanded living room (“great” room), and a 1,537 SF 5-bedroom model.

My professor encouraged me to submit my project to the competition.  I was late and my other classmates had long heard back from the organizers that their entries had been received.  I had heard nothing, so I assumed it was lost in the mail.  Oh well.

So I was surprised when late one evening I got a call from the organizers on the West Coast.  I asked if they received my entry.  They said they did, and I won the Grand Award.  First place out of 375 international entries.  The prize was $5,000 and they would build a model in Tacoma, Washington.  I was stunned.  I was still in graduate school and working construction summers for a design/build firm.  I used the prize money to purchase my first computer:  an IBM PC, First Generation.  It cost $4,500, had no hard drive, a full-size floppy drive (for 4″ floppies), an amber monochrome monitor, and 640 KB of RAM.  Using a copy of WordPerfect, version 1, and AutoCAD version 1.1, I wrote my thesis expanding on the project and exploring the roots and origins of vernacular design.

Innovation in Housing 1985 Grand Award house, Tacoma, WA

Innovation in Housing 1985 Grand Award house, Tacoma, WA. Photo by Chris Eden.

The plans for the house were sold through Better Homes & Gardens (one of the sponsors of the competition) and I enjoyed some small royalties that certainly came in handy for buying day-old bagels to steam on my college hot plate.

You’ll notice in the photo of the Tacoma house that they did some odd things that we just don’t do in Florida:  wood shake roof and wood foundation (they must not have termites in Washington state).  They had me add a garage to make the plan more marketable.  Even with all this, it was built in 1985 for $67,500.  Well under the competition maximum of $75,000.

It was almost 20 years later when a friend in Orange Park told me how he loved that design and asked to build it for his home a couple of blocks from my own.  It was a treat to see it built (I never got to see the model built in Tacoma). Now this is more like what I had in mind:  tin roof, vertical siding.

Dinkins Residence, Orange Park, FL

Dinkins Residence, Orange Park, FL

Ben Dinkins, the owner of the house in Orange Park, had an investment opportunity and a vision to create low cost, high density housing in Orange Park. So we worked together to create a community of houses based on the “Flexible Vernacular” design.  He called the project Kingsley Junction (next to the old railroad station) on Corduroy Road.  Fortunately he paved the road, so it was not a true country corduroy road.

Corduroy Road development, Orange Park, FL

Corduroy Road development, Orange Park, FL

Corduroy Road development, Orange Park, FL

Corduroy Road development, Orange Park, FL

We created three different models, and made a concession to modern taste in providing a single car garage.

It was a fun project.

That original 862 SF base home has stuck in mind over the years.  It has led to a continuing interest in tiny homes.  Recently I have begun to research ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units).  These are appearing in increasing numbers around the country as guest houses, or “grandparent” homes beside larger homes.  With the graying of America I think this will become an increasingly important trend.

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