A South Carolina Island Custom Home Built to Weather Any Storm

This rock-solid custom home defies the volatile climate of coastal South Carolina while exceeding the expectations of both the homeowners and long-time residents of Sullivan’s Island. The coastal home, reminiscent of the cottage style, has a friendly exterior in scale with its surroundings.

July 01, 2007
Lighthouse Likeness
Custom Built Home

The oceanfront site was very narrow and lacked natural protection from the elements. Sensitive to overbuilding on the island and concerned about the prospect of future hurricanes as devastating as Katrina, local legislators had put in place new design requirements and site restrictions.

The rear elevation, which faces the ocean, has a screened porch fitted with an outdoor kitchen and runs the full width of the house. On the sun deck off the porch, a curved railing mimics the shape of hte dining room's window seat.

But the owners of the Sullivan's Island, S.C., lot wanted to build a large home where family and friends could stay for extended periods. Seabrook Island, S.C.-based builder Buffington Homes rose to every challenge, and the result is a 4,844-square-foot, four-level residence with 360-degree ocean views.

The home doesn't look out of place among its mostly smaller neighbors. Architect Stephen Herlong of Stephen Herlong & Associates in Isle of Palms, S.C., points out that the house actually has two faces: a street front and an ocean front. "What you find on Sullivan's Island are predominately small beach cottages, and we were trying to use those forms," says Herlong. The front elevation, which faces the street, appears cottage-like in scale, while the rear (oceanfront) elevation has varying rooflines, an arched roof element and separate porches to make the house look "smaller and friendlier," says custom builder Dan Buffington. To comply with the island's maximum height restriction of 38 feet, the second floor had to be set back an additional five feet from the first floor.

Originally the site housed a hotel, which burned down around the turn of the century; the parcel was subsequently divided into narrow lots. This particular lot is 69 feet wide and one of the only lots that extends to the high water line of the ocean, Herlong says. Although the overall lot size is 1.3 acres, the buildable area is only 1/3 acre, so the architect looked for every conceivable way to create living space. One solution was to build a cupola watchtower, surrounded by an open roof deck.

Forces of Nature

Brazilian cherry random-width hardwood floors were used in the kitchen, dining room and living room to visually lin the areas. Buffington's craftsmanship comes through in the extensive trimwork and ceiling designs.

The home had to be constructed to withstand the long-term effects of sun and salt water as well as hurricane-force winds and rain. Local building codes were updated after the 2005 hurricane season and are now comparable to Dade County, Fla., requirements, says Buffington. He budgeted more than $10,000 just for hurricane straps, wind clips and framing hardware compared with $1,000 to $1,500 five years ago. Nails, hinges and other exterior hardware are made of stainless steel. Wood shear walls and approximately 50 hold-down brackets were used to prevent the house from racking (moving) when battered by high winds.

The custom builder drove pilings 40 feet into the ground, cut them off at grade level and built a regular foundation on top of the pilings. Should heavy wave action erode the soil away from the footings, the pilings will keep the house upright, Buffington says.

Charles Arnold, project manager for Buffington, says the home's steel framing is more typical of commercial construction than residential. Four two-story columns rise from the pilings all the way up through the attic, where they're bolted to two 5-inch-wide by 24-inch-deep glulam wood beams. The beams are each 20 feet long and support the rooftop deck and cupola.

"The ocean side of the first floor is all windows," says Arnold, "and there's very little wall there [to provide structural strength]." Buffington erected a wind frame consisting of steel columns and beams that run between the windows and doors and along the tops of headers. In effect, the wind frame takes the place of a solid wall.

While the numerous steel beams made the house very strong, they were challenging for the electrical, HVAC and plumbing contractors, who didn't always have a clear span from side to side to route wiring, ductwork and pipes. Herlong says he met frequently with the builder, engineer and trade contractors to examine construction drawings and devise solutions.

"The house was basically divided into two zones: the first floor and the second floor," says Buffington. "All of the second-floor utilities were run through the attic spaces and all of the first-floor utilities were run under the building."

To keep warm, damp ocean breezes from causing mold and mildew inside the home, Buffington used closed-cell polyurethane for insulation, which also has an extremely low permeability rating. His crew foamed the entire exterior envelope of the house, including the underside of the roof (attics are not vented). Buffington also installed an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) to remove humidity from the air. "We damp [the ERV] a little bit so it puts a positive pressure on the inside of the house. This keeps moist air from getting in if there are some areas where we have not been able to seal, [such as] around windows and doors."

For maximum durability, the exterior combines fiber-cement siding and shakes; PVC trim boards; cedar trim boards; and pressure-treated trim boards. All windows and doors are hurricane-impact-rated.

Living Large

The ground floor is devoted primarily to parking and storage space, plus an elevator and showers for washing off the sand after a day at the beach. The living room, dining room, kitchen, home office and two guest bedrooms are on the first floor, along with a screened porch with an outdoor kitchen and a sun deck with a curved railing. The owner's suite, her son's bedroom suite, two additional guest bedrooms and a laundry room comprise the second floor.

While the outside of the home is cottage-like, the interior has a more traditional, formal look than a typical beach house, says Herlong. That formality is underscored by extensive interior detailing such as coffered and barrel-vaulted ceilings, decorative columns and deep crown moldings. The first-floor plan makes an especially dramatic design statement: the kitchen, dining room and living room are open to each other and flanked by a wall of glass affording spectacular seaside views.

Buffington says the island is populated with many long-time residents who were, at first, concerned that the house would look out of character. "Once it was completed, though, several neighbors came by and said, 'You know, that is a beautiful house. It feels and looks very Sullivan's Island."

The home received a Gold Award for Best One-of-a-Kind Custom Home in the 2006 Best in American Living Awards.


Lighthouse Likeness

Architect Stephen Herlong says about 10 percent of the homes on Sullivan's Island have cupolas. Also known as widow's walks, cupolas historically provided a vantage point for women to spot their husbands' ships returning from a long sea voyage.

In this home, Herlong's rooftop cupola is reminiscent of the old Moultrie lighthouse on Sullivan's Island. Located above the master suite and accessed by a spiral staircase on the second floor, the cupola/watchtower is surrounded by a deck and provides views in every direction. "It makes use of part of the flat roof as living area," says Herlong.

Builder Buffington Homes had to request a 7-foot variance above the island's 38-foot height limit to allow for the cupola, which custom builder Dan Buffington describes as Herlong's signature statement. "It reminds everyone to enjoy the free 'nature channel' we sometimes take for granted," Buffington says. After the house was completed, a new zoning ordinance was passed prohibiting cupolas on Sullivan's Island.

Custom Built Home

Style of Home: Beach cottage

Location: Sullivan's Island, S.C.

Total Square Footage: 4,844 square feet

Architect/Residential Design: Stephen Herlong & Associates, Isle of Palms, S.C.

Builder: Buffington Homes, Seabrook Island, S.C.

Interior Designer: Daniel Island Designs, Charleston, S.C.

Major Products Used:

APPLIANCES: Bosch, Dacor, Frigidaire, Miele, Sub-Zero, Whirlpool, Wolf; CABINETRY: Custom; COUNTERTOPS: Granite; FIREPLACE(S): Lennox; FLOORING: Brazilian cherry; HVAC: Bryant; PLUMBING FIXTURES: Eljer, Elkay, Grohe, Kohler; LIGHTING: Juno LOCKSETS: Baldwin; PAINTS & STAINS: Benjamin Moore, Cabot; ROOFING: Copper; SIDING: HardiePlank; WINDOWS & DOORS: Marvin Windows, Wood Harbor Doors

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