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All-Around Town Architects

Khoury & Vogt Architects are definitely putting their New Urbanist stamp on Alys Beach, formerly a parcel of virgin land in the Florida panhandle that is now a growing resort town.

By Gordon Bock

Many architects would be satisfied to build a pipeline of commissions and clients in not too far-flung locations, but when you get the chance to do all your work in the same community – and even put your own stamp on it from day one – that's a whole different design game. Yet that's just what the firm of Khoury & Vogt Architects was hired on to do when it took the job of town architect for the growing resort of Alys Beach. Based on the Florida coast near Pensacola, the office, which tops out around six people, has a whole zip code as its most important work-in-progress.

The title 'town architect' looks good on a business card or sign, but in terms of a practice, what exactly does it mean? Says principal Eric Vogt, AIA, "Traditionally, the job of town architect is to form an office, generally on-site, and oversee basically every aspect of the town's development – and that certainly applies to us." In this case, though, "every aspect" is truly the operative phrase because the town is excitingly different and totally new. "When we arrived, Alys Beach was pretty much virgin land," says principal Marieanne Khoury-Vogt, AIA, "and though there was a master plan and a vision, we were hired prior to the developer even getting his development order."

"We're really soup-to-nuts here," says Vogt. "We work on the larger scale of the town – refining the town center, block by block, and coming up with a vision of how it might look and be implemented, down to the smallest details of, say, choosing a plant palette suitable for a park area. It's very satisfying to find yourself responsible – in good ways and bad – for every detail of not just a building or landscape, but every single piece, from electrical transformers to roof pitches and chimneys." Adds Khoury-Vogt, "We oversee the work of other architects, landscape architects, and designers, as well as the implementation of infrastructure, roads and utilities, but we also produce our own work. Indeed, the very first building that broke ground was one of our designs, a sales center that was planned to eventually be converted into a house, so we've been involved from the very beginning."

From Miami to Yankee and Back
As it happens, Khoury-Vogt and Vogt are partners in life as well as professionally. They met in Miami while working as architects for different firms; Vogt in particular spent a couple years with Duany Plater-Zyberk. After marrying, they relocated to New Haven, CT, where Vogt continued his studies at Yale and Khoury-Vogt spent time with Herbert Newman Architects, helping to renovate and restore campus buildings. "Once Eric was done with graduate school," says Khoury-Vogt, "we pretty much knew we wanted to start our own office, so we targeted Miami because it was a city with a lot of work and one we knew well." Back in Florida, they set up their own firm in August 2001 and though commissions were naturally small and modest in the beginning, they had the foundation of a solid practice when the developer of Alys Beach called.

Khoury-Vogt admits that the job of town architect sounded very attractive, but at first they weren't particularly interested in moving up to the Florida panhandle. "We had settled comfortably into Miami," she recalls, "and had started to put down roots and get some very nice clients, nonetheless we did go up and meet with the developer."

It was Andrés Duany, principal at Duany Plater-Zyberk, the master planners for Alys Beach, who encouraged Khoury & Vogt to relocate their practice upstate and take the job as town architects for their New Urbanist resort community. "He convinced us that the town would offer very good design opportunities for us as architects," says Vogt. "Since you don't get many plum projects when you're starting out, we eventually agreed that it would be a great chance to jump-start our design work."

A Tabula Rasa of a Town
Right from the get-go it was clear that Alys Beach would be no ordinary town. To begin with, town founder Jason Comer was not a traditional real estate developer, and his family happened to own a rare, consolidated, 160-acre parcel of land along the Gulf Coast. Next, the developer had hired not your average architects but DPZ – the firm who took New Urbanism from theory to reality with the much lauded community of Seaside, FL, as well as its nearby sister community, Rosemary Beach. In the vision of Andrés Duany, Alys Beach would be the third generation of "a distinctive beach town designed and founded upon the principles of New Urbanism."

As Vogt explains it, what distinguishes Alys Beach as New Urbanist is the way in which it is planned "truly as a town in the traditional sense" with a mix of uses, completely walkable, and built in an architectural style that contributes to a coherent and harmonious urban whole in terms of the street. Adds Khoury-Vogt, "As master planned by DPZ, there is a town center that will have a variety of different building types – live-work, mixed-use buildings, primarily commercial/retail on the first floor, and residential above. It's a beautiful site, and when all is said and done it will probably be 800 to 900 units – a combination of single-family homes and condos, yet all built around the concept of a walkable, pedestrian-friendly environment."

Adds Vogt, "The master plan made by DPZ establishes all this, but the design code is what guides the build-out. And what guides the design code is our office and all of our many collaborators – both on our team, as well as the outside designers who are contributing to the building-out of the town."

What really sets the unique character of Alys Beach is the form and construction of the houses – as unexpected in their form and simplicity as they are hauntingly familiar – dreamlike is a word often used. "In terms of typology, it's courtyard housing – the patio house," says Khoury-Vogt. "Though the precedent is from Antigua, Guatemala, it's inspired by Bermuda, so it's an all-white architecture, 90 percent of which is masonry, making it both sculptural and beautiful."

From this description alone, it's apparent Alys Beach is not yet another spin on the neo-vernacular 'cracker house' – that low, backcountry, frame dwelling with a shallow roof and ample porch that became the poster child for indigenous Florida architecture by the 1990s. "Actually, it's intentionally quite the opposite," says Vogt. "After seeing examples of new wood cracker neighborhoods that started to get a bit frenetic, because they came from the hands of talented architects who got a little competitive, DPZ sought to establish a residential language that would remain quieter in an urban setting."

Duany in particular had long admired the island architecture of Bermuda and had been waiting for the right occasion to revisit it. "It's a very simple but coherent vernacular that is just stuccoed walls with tiled and cement-slaked roofs," explains Khoury-Vogt. "So you have these very simple, almost Monopoly-like houses that might appear very staid – even boring – by themselves, but are actually very pleasing when combined on an urban street because each building is not trying to outdo its neighbor."

Another primary driver of the design is the masonry construction. While frame houses have done very well on the Gulf Coast, building more durably for aggressive hurricanes, as well as the day-to-day wear of the marine environment, made a lot of sense. "It's concrete block with basically every cell filled, then it's reinforced beyond the requirements of the Florida building code, which is already pretty rigorous," Khoury-Vogt adds.

Alys Beach is also built to the Fortified Building Guidelines, which mandates impact-resistant doors and windows. "Since the architectural model is Bermuda," adds Khoury-Vogt, "we have to have pretty shallow eaves – also good against uplift in hurricanes." Since building with masonry has some very real added costs, part of Khoury & Vogt's initial job was to persuade the client base that it's worth the up-front investment, but that logic has been easier to demonstrate as time goes on.

"All of these things are absolutely traditional elements," says Vogt, "We are inventing nothing here." Rather, he adds, they are taking elements and ideas that have been in various warm-weather cultures – Spain, Italy, the Middle East – for thousands of years and redeploying them. "Like a cuisine, you're recombining ingredients in ways that have not been done before, but you're certainly not inventing any new food."

Like many resort communities along the Gulf Coast, Alys Beach is a magnet for the towns of the South – Atlanta, Birmingham, over to Texas, and even up to Nashville, TN, and the Carolinas. As Vogt explains, they attract people who are generally traditional in taste, but used to Southern architecture in the Classical and Georgian vein. "While there was some initial trepidation about Alys Beach, and we worried that the market might be a little wary of this housing type, all our fears were unfounded." According to the architects, Alys Beach resonates with people as something that is both engagingly new and yet familiar at a hard-to-define level. "We get comments like, 'It's not quite like a place we once visited in Italy, but it reminds me of it in a good way.'"

Depending upon your point of view, designing a town from scratch may seem the ideal way to head off problems or, if you're a pessimist, invite them, but Khoury & Vogt sees it all as an amazing process with benefits in every challenge. For example, Khoury-Vogt notes, "We have been able to forge relationships with millwork companies that help us provide a library of windows and doors that we think are well-suited to the houses that are being designed."

An even bigger asset though has been coming onboard as the town architect right from the ground-breaking – and at that same time the construction company was hired. Explains Khoury-Vogt, "It's been an incredible advantage to work hand-in-hand with the construction company over the last seven years – not only to further refine the architectural model, but also to look at ways that we can be smarter with building materials and the choices that we make."

Vogt is struck by the way they have to keep equal tabs on the larger strategic mission as well as the smallest details. "Since we're still early in the project, we continue to wrestle with what we call global decisions. We may have to select one tiny element of the environment – a lamppost or a paver – but it's a global decision because, whatever the choice, it's going to have to be implemented over a generation of buildings."

Since these global decisions are fraught with a lot of weight, Khoury & Vogt says they've learned the value of pushing them off as far as is practical into the future. This buys time to obtain the maximum amount of information and have other details in place before making a decision. They also try to get input from everyone on the team, and test many different options for a decision, until they're comfortable with a choice. "We're very happy to say we haven't made any global decisions that we'd like to rethink, because it would be very costly and time-consuming to have to change course on any one of them – even though what we're selecting may be very mundane."

Indeed, seven years after arriving at the patch of untouched coast that was to be Alys Beach, Khoury & Vogt clearly would do it all over again, noting "We've learned a tremendous amount, are very grateful to our town founder Jason Comer, and our regrets are less-than-zero."


Gordon Bock is a writer, architectural historian, and technical consultant whose upcoming courses and most popular workshops can be seen at



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