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Community Service

A Florida-based New Urbanist designs grand single-family residences and contributes to large-scale community planning.
By Dan Cooper

The warm climes of Florida have been the spawning ground for New Urbanism, and architect Geoffrey Mouen's office is located in one of the movement's most famous zip codes, 34747, also known as Celebration. Here, Mouen and his 16-person staff address the wants and needs of individuals and entire towns as the firm designs homes and public buildings in a variety of historically inspired styles, all while reflecting the tenets of New Urbanism.

Mouen's career path has followed an enviable trajectory. After earning his Master in Architecture from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 1989, he arrived in New York City, eventually working for Robert A.M. Stern Architects, where he became an associate involved with the gamut of project types. Then, in 1996, he and his wife became the parents of twins, and citing the usual, frenzied quality-of-life issues endemic to those working 80 hours while trying to rear children, they realized they wanted to spend more time as a family. "The kids were being raised by the nanny," says Mouen, "so we decided to slow down a bit and move to Celebration in 1999, where I became the town architect."

After three years in that position, Mouen decided to start his own practice, Geoffrey Mouen Architects (GMA), which had always been his ultimate professional goal. "Being the town architect of Celebration was the perfect incubation period for me," he says. "I had built a strong reputation with the local builders and clients, which made me a well-known New Urbanist architect, and this in turn has led to my company's expansion in both the scale and location of projects."

The firm's stock-in-trade has traditionally been high-end residences, many of which are located in the southeastern U.S., although the firm now has commissions well beyond this area and outside the country. Espousing New Urbanist ideals, Mouen's work is designed to integrate communities and often draws from a traditional vocabulary indigenous to warmer regions.

Background Building
Some of the more distinctive examples of the company's work are a series of beach houses located on the Gulf Coast in Rosemary Beach, near Florida's earliest New Urbanist community, Seaside. Built in the Anglo-Caribbean style, these residences are a blend of Mediterranean-influenced masonry ground floors coupled with shingled or clapboarded upper stories that are adorned with heavily bracketed porches and deeply overhanging eaves. Each structure reveals an intimate awareness of early-20th-century North American influences while blending them in a unique manner that carefully avoids rote reproduction. In all of these homes, one observes the nuances of Spanish Colonial transitioning seamlessly into Shingle or Craftsman style detailing.

"The Rosemary Beach neighborhood has 400-500 houses that are primarily vacation homes," says Mouen. "When I first went there, I saw that every architect was doing a fantastic job, and that each home was a masterpiece. You couldn't fault them, but because every house was a masterpiece, the overall impression was that everything was a little overdone. It was like going through a museum where you'd get burned out looking at the vast amount of detail.

"With our beach houses, I wanted to simplify the architecture a little bit, and make it contribute toward a more cohesive-looking neighborhood rather than have each residence draw too much attention to itself. We created ‘background' buildings; we feel that not every house has to be a ‘foreground' building." This concept could be challenging, Mouen notes, when working with high-end clients. "They often want to make a strong statement," he says, "but what I've found is that if you present the plans as part of an entire streetscape, they'll feel that it looks as good as the others without overstepping. However, sometimes with ‘new money' they'll want something wild, and in this case, I'll try to point them elsewhere. We work hard to have a presence in design but also blend in well with the character of the neighborhood and context in terms of the environment."

This use of restraint, when faced with the temptation of excess, is also evident in the Barillas residence in Orlando, FL. "A lot of the homes in the development are ‘Mediterranean on steroids,' so when we sat down with the client, who wanted a traditional Spanish Hacienda, we pored through our library and went over the works of George Washington Smith and Addison Mizner, as well as photos of houses from rural Spain and other vernacular examples," says Mouen. "We wanted the place to be grand, but not pretentious." Indeed, the sprawling Barillas residence is unmistakably Spanish in influence, but exhibits a refinement that precludes overstatement. Recalling the architecture of southern California or Florida of the 1920s, the stucco façade is tastefully embellished to avoid the appearance of extraneous ornamentation. Mouen also designed a barrel-vaulted gallery and vaulted ceilings, which lend an opulent touch to the interior.

Classical Roots
Mouen has also produced strictly Neoclassical homes for clients. The Hoepker residence in the historic College Park section of Orlando is designed in the Southern plantation tradition, and is adorned with massive, two-story columns that belie the 30-ft. height restriction imposed by the local historic district. The L-shaped lot proved challenging as well, and the architect was able to incorporate a two-story wing that encloses the garage bays at its base, emulating the carriage entrances of the past in lieu of a standalone garage.

Mindful of the house's place in the historic district, Mouen incorporated traditional Neoclassical design motifs and concepts into the interior, with rooms leading off of a center hallway. Entry to the parlors is gained through large colonnades, and throughout the first floor, heavy moldings appropriate to the period frame doors and windows, while the kitchen pays homage to turn-of-the-century culinary cabinetry with its simple lines and restrained, but solid, finish work.

At The Waters in Montgomery, AL, Mouen created a Southern variation on the ubiquitous Federal style, with an added columned front portico. "We wanted a simple Colonial with a two-story porch and a Classical vernacular that fit into the coastal South," he says. The porch itself lends the impression of a turn-of-the-century Colonial Revival addition to an earlier 19th-century construction, and an el at the rear of the home contributes to the impression that the residence has evolved over the decades. Mouen is justifiably proud of these houses' air of authenticity: "People ask the owners ‘when did you renovate?' when in truth, these are all new buildings."

Mouen's commissions aren't limited to styles found solely in the southeastern part of the country; his Rabbitt residence, sited on Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, is directly inspired by the Shingle Style that is so prevalent in New York and New England. The main, gambrel-roofed home is a convincing pastiche of Shingle and Colonial Revival influences, but an innovative adaption is a quaint guesthouse on the property, which features a projecting second-story bay window.

GMA has also designed large multi-unit projects in New Urbanist communities, notably the Albany Lofts and the Candella Townhouses. Both developments reflect time-honored historic styles; in the Bahamian Albany Lofts, one observes the graceful Anglo-Caribbean stylings of the islands, while in the Candella Townhouses, in Kissimmee, FL, Mizner's influence is present in the grand massings of its Spanish Colonial façade, revealing the early-20th-century hybridization of Spanish and Neoclassical styles.

Dealing with the extremes of heat and humidity in the Southeast typically compels builders to seek alternatives to wood for exterior trim, even when creating historically accurate structures that would have used lumber. "Interestingly enough," says Mouen, "on the Hoepker house, there isn't any wood on the exterior whatsoever. It's a great example of using stock parts and pieces of manmade materials to create traditional architecture. Nobody uses wood in Celebration – in fact, the first phases of buildings that did use it had to have their wood trim replaced in two years."

Of course, mass-produced trim has its limitations. "The composite materials have come a long way in detail and scale, but I noticed there was a proportional problem," says Mouen. "When designing a Classical roofline, and employing the sima molding, you find that when you connect this from the rake edge to the edge along the eaves, the horizontal moldings are actually a different size, as the rake edge intersects at an angle. The easy way out is the poor-man's entablature, where the rake edge is mitered into the horizontal. In the old days though, carpenters used a different molding knife for each profile. Fortunately, I was able to consult with AZEK Building Products and convinced them to manufacture two sets of profiles that will work with almost all roof pitches. One series is intended for 3/12 to 5.5/12 roofs and the other is for 6/12 to 12/12. Now anyone designing a Classical gable can have access to the properly proportioned moldings in a manmade material."

Going Green
Perhaps Mouen's most boldly designed residence is the recently completed Tradewinds Show Home of 2008, in Baldwin Park, FL. Mindful of the heightened interest in sustainability and green building techniques, Mouen took a giant leap backwards in creating an energy-efficient home – he used prevailing winds to cool the structure. "We studied the breezes as they affected the site, and by using 13-ft.-high ceilings, and clerestory windows for convection, we can actually shut the air conditioning off most of the time. There are three wings to the house, each of which has windows and doors on both sides and an entire wall in the kitchen can be opened to the wind on both sides of each wing. We also used broadly overhanging eaves, which are important for shade, and the foundation is raised up five feet to contribute to the convection. There's also an insulated, reflective metal roof that keeps the attic cool, lowering the burden on the air conditioning, and we located the air-conditioning unit in the center of the attic to minimize the length of the duct runs. As long as the wind is 5-6 knots, air conditioning isn't needed eight months of the year. If it's 85 degrees outside, it feels like it's 72 inside the home. We wanted to show that you don't need gadgets and gizmos to be green, and we received Florida Green Certification even though there are no active solar or geothermal units."

The aesthetics of the Tradewinds house depart from its neighbors as well. "For this showcase house, we chose to use the Anglo-Caribbean style, which is somewhat different from the other residences in the area that are built in variations of the typical 1920s revival styles," says Mouen. "The actual massing of the house is based on a Roman Villa; I like to say that it has Roman bones. The design is appropriate to the climate and we used locally available materials, such as locally harvested and milled cypress timbers and local stucco and masonry."

Architectural Charrette Team
Along with GMA, Mouen maintains a separate company, known as the Architectural Charrette Team, or ACT, which provides design guidance on a larger scale without the same amount of involvement in construction they normally devote to individual residences.

Mouen had sensed a need for quality architectural design at a more affordable price range. "We offer charrettes, consultations and schematics to developers and builders seeking to create attractive and distinctive complexes," he says. "We can make a greater impact for the general good on the public and environment. Our system allows a top-tier architect like Robert Stern, Michael Imber, Don Swartz or Marianne Cusato to come in and have a positive impact on production buildings. Our architectural charrette team will design the construction plans and value engineer the whole process; this allows builders and developers to get the best design talent while maintaining their design costs.

"For example, in a period of three to four months, we produced 90 houses of different types; that's 90 multiple elevations in ten different production types in one specific style. We work really hard to help developers envision the architectural style for their project, and we engage the builder and developer and want them involved in the decision making process so we can extract what they need and how they plan to market and sell their development. We design conceptually compared to what they normally do, which is to ‘make it fit,' which often means not following New Urbanist standards like putting the garage in the back. Our goal is to walk the principals, the developers, the builders and anyone else involved through the process by getting them all in the same room at the same time for a charrette, which cuts down the ‘back and forth' time a great deal and expedites the process immeasurably."

In a typical scenario involving ACT, a developer will hire the firm to define the vision of a community and then ask them to design a series of buildings, a pattern book or a design code for a development. ACT also works with town architects, and will review proposed projects for towns like Celebration and Jupiter. They also establish design review procedures and design codes and help administer them.

ACT is also taking full advantage of technological advances. "In Cyprus," says Mouen, "we're working with Robert Stern on a project called Secret Valley. The site is so remote that instead of a design book, everything is posted on the website. So we can update information, and then we can track the review process and use document management software to control and track all changes to the design and allow the developer to download the architectural design scheme. We'll teleconference with Skype or a similar method and this allows us to keep it clean and simple to organize documentation and communicate with international clients. It's a great step forward."

Mouen is keenly aware of his role in creating not only beautifully designed homes, but also his responsibility
to the livability of neighborhoods and towns. "We are trying to make a positive impact on the public and the environment," he says. "Our concept allows an
important architect to come in and create great designs for the production builder. I like to think that this allows us to change America much more than one house at a time."  

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