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Simple Forms

Tampa, FL-based Eric Watson, Architect, specializes in designing southern vernacular and Caribbean-inspired homes in the New Urbanist developments of the Florida Panhandle.
By Will Holloway

Almost 20 years ago, a second-year graduate student at the Yale School of Architecture took an advanced studio taught by Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. It was 1987, and although Seaside was becoming well known and New Urbanism was beginning to gain a foothold, "An Introduction to the Principles of Town Planning" was not his first choice. Nor was it his second choice. Yet – due in part to the nature of the lottery system – that very studio would come to have a profound effect upon the student. A few years later, his own designs would be taking shape at Seaside; several years later, he would parlay that experience into a thriving practice with commissions at many of the emerging New Urbanist developments in Florida.

Education in Context
Eric Watson, AIA, CNU, has always had a passion for designing houses. As a child in the 1970s, he became fascinated with traditional houses when his family built their home – a red-brick Georgian – in Raleigh, NC. At the time, the area in and around Raleigh was growing rapidly with the development of Research Triangle Park; after school, Watson would walk through all the houses being built in his neighborhood and become familiar with their design and construction details. Returning home, he would spend countless hours with a T-square and triangle drawing the various aspects of the houses he had seen as well as drafting his own creations. Having known he wanted to be an architect from a young age, he attended the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he received a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture. After a one-year internship in Florida, he headed off to the Yale School of Architecture.

"I chose Yale because I liked the flexibility the program offered," says Watson. "It seemed like the school had an interest in bringing a variety of practitioners and teachers with a wide range of interests and ideas to the studios, so the school didn’t seem to force you into learning a certain kind of architecture." Fortunately for Watson, that variety of practitioners and teachers included Duany and Plater-Zyberk. "Lizz and Andrés’ proposed design studio was unpopular with the students," he says. "There was little interest because the assignment was not to design a building, but rather an entire town. In the end, it was the best studio of the six that I took at Yale and the one that had the most significant impact on my experience in the program. It opened my eyes to town planning, the emerging New Urbanist movement and the idea of creating buildings that work collectively at a bigger scale within a community – not as object buildings with little regard to their context."

After Yale, Watson spent two years designing in a variety of traditional styles in the office of architect Alan Wanzenberg and the late interior designer Jed Johnson in New York City. Eager to return to Florida – where he’d spent a year interning between undergraduate and graduate school – he got in touch with Duany. "At the time, he didn’t have an opportunity in his office, but he agreed to meet with me," says Watson. "He said, ‘Eric, you need to go work for [then Windsor town architect] Scott Merrill’ – but he presented it in a way that was really like, ‘Eric, you are going to work for Scott Merrill.’ While we were talking, Andrés called Merrill in Vero Beach and said, ‘Scott, I’m sending you up a former student – you’re going to hire him, he’s going to work for you.’ So before I knew it, I was headed back up the turnpike to Vero Beach, where I talked with Scott and was hired immediately."

The two years he spent working on new houses at Windsor enabled Watson to combine his passion for houses with his interest in designing them within communities based on the principles of New Urbanism. Intrigued by this type of work and eager to start his own practice, Watson called Seaside developer Robert Davis in 1992. "I had met Robert when he was on my final jury at Lizz and Andrés’ Yale studio," he says. "I knew that he had a tradition of hiring young architects to come to Seaside for a brief period of time to work with him designing relatively simple buildings. I agreed to go up there for what I thought would be three to six months, but I ended up staying three years. That was a great opportunity because, as a young architect, you could get something built quickly – since they’re relatively simple wood-framed structures – and you worked directly with the contractors and the homeowners in a hands-on way. Being on site, you had the opportunity to go right out into the field and look at all these building details that are commonly used in that type of vernacular architecture."

Although the majority of his work would be at Seaside and the subsequent New Urbanist resort communities in the region, the Florida Panhandle was not the most desirable location for a young architect to live in the early ’90s. So, with a few Seaside projects under his belt – including a well-known Classically inspired beachfront pavilion – and having picked up several more commissions within Seaside, Watson opened an office in Tampa in 1995. "There were also many New Urbanist towns being developed around Seaside at the time, so I knew there was the potential for a lot of work in the area," he says. "But it was a difficult place to live at the time, so I moved to Tampa and decided that I would commute between there and my work at Seaside."

Today, Watson travels once a month from his Tampa office to the Florida Panhandle, where he estimates 85 percent of his work is focused. The New Urbanist developments there have been a perfect fit for Watson because they combine so many of his interests: designing individual residences, designing within the context of the larger community, Caribbean precedent and the simple vernacular structures of the South.

Private Domains
Just over 30 miles west of Panama City, FL, County Road 30-A breaks off from US-98 and runs westward along the Gulf of Mexico. Its initial seven-mile stretch is a veritable laboratory of New Urbanism, encompassing three developments master planned by Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ): the 105-acre Rosemary Beach (1997), the 158-acre Alys Beach (2003) and the 80-acre Seaside (1980), widely recognized as the original New Urbanist development.

The process of designing within New Urbanist developments requires balancing client’s desires with the guidelines set forth in the architectural code. Each development has its own distinct architectural character. While Seaside was most strongly influenced by the vernacular structures of the South, Rosemary Beach was influenced by the architecture of St. Augustine, FL, the West Indies and the courtyard gardens of New Orleans, LA. The all-white masonry structures at Alys Beach took their cues from the courtyard houses of Guatemala, Antigua and Bermuda.

"You’ve been given a set of guidelines in the architectural code and the urban code, the main restrictions being the footprint, the height, the setback, the minimum porch size and location, the roof pitch, the proportions of doors and windows and the building typology – each lot has been assigned a specific house or building type," says Watson. "So you don’t just have a clean slate with which you can design whatever you want – you have variables with which to begin the design process, in addition to the client’s requirements, which are useful in developing a design strategy. I enjoy that aspect of the design process – taking into account all these variables, some fixed and some not, in developing a point of departure for my design strategy. There are restrictive requirements in the architectural code that create design challenges, but I see them as useful tools in the design process."

In 1995, Watson designed the Haupt-Walstrom House at Seaside, a Charleston side-yard house type that he describes as one of his most interesting designs. "The clients requested a timber-frame structure – they had recently moved from timber-frame house in the Caribbean," he says. "They were interested in rough wood textures, and I think it was an appropriate starting point for the design because their site was in the pine forest at the inland boundary of Seaside. It’s entirely built of eastern white pine timber that was cut and milled in the mountains of North Carolina. All of the timbers were pre-cut and assigned a code number related to a timber layout drawing that I had done. It was an exciting house to work on – the process of building and the expressive use of wood and contrasting textures. The timbers and wood tongue-and-groove cladding were finished with a water/paint mixture. The same color was used in every room, so the owner’s furnishings – a collection of English and Caribbean antiques and art – became the color and focus of the interior."

The Queen House (1997) was designed to be expressive of the challenges of its site – an unusually shaped lot between a public frontage at the head of Seaside’s Smolian Circle and a decidedly quieter street to the rear. "It’s a picturesque, sculptural, large structure broken down into several forms," says Watson. "From a tall tower at the most prominent side of the house, the massing steps down to the smaller scale of the back street. It’s a layering of a variety of spaces and volumes, from the public front porch to the semi-private courtyard to the private interior and private garden in the back."

At the foot of Smolian Circle, the Walters-Buczko (1998) and Baker (2004) houses sit on identical triangular-shaped lots opposite one another. As entry markers to Smolian Circle, both houses present symmetrical Classical façades to the street. Like the Haupt-Walstrom and Queen houses, they were successful in overcoming one of the major challenges of designing within New Urbanist communities: creating privacy for the homeowner in a dense community. "The lots are much more densely configured than in a typical suburban community," says Watson. "So privacy is a big concern – how can you create a private domain for the homeowner while also creating a building that participates in the public space of the community, all in a limited area within which to work?

"One way of dealing with this is by carefully locating a house’s primary spaces. A lot of clients, both at Seaside and Rosemary Beach, request their main living spaces on the second floor for two reasons. First, if the house is a mid-distance from the gulf front, this gives them a view of the horizon of the gulf. Secondly, being a level up provides a level of privacy that may not be possible if the main living area is on the street or boardwalk. I also try to create space for a private garden or courtyard that is only for the client."

Reinterpreting Tradition
Developed 15 years after Seaside, Rosemary Beach had the advantage of learning from the successes and failures of Seaside. "One of the biggest differences between the Seaside and Rosemary Beach code is that at Rosemary Beach, there is limited allowance for towers," says Watson. "At Seaside, towers can be built anywhere, on any lot. At Rosemary Beach, towers are restricted to specific lots where they terminate specific visual axes from streets and pedestrian walkways. At Seaside, everyone has a tower, so their impact is diminished. At Rosemary Beach, because there are so few of them, they are special.

"Unlike Seaside, Rosemary Beach allows masonry with concrete stucco. The houses are relatively simple masonry structures with wood-framed upper stories. Timber porches, brackets and wood shutters give expressive detail and texture and interesting shadows on the masonry walls."

Watson has designed more than 25 houses at Rosemary Beach, ranging from carriage houses to large beachfront houses, in a variety of styles. Yet for Watson, style is secondary – in lieu of replicating traditional styles, he aims he reinterpret them. "My primary architectural design interests are the building massing and form and an efficiency in the plan diagram that is generated from the client’s building program," he says. "My designs are heavily influenced by early discussions with the client. In general, these are resort houses and most clients want them to be quite different from their primary residence. They are drawn to these communities because of their distinct architectural styles. They usually present images of the Caribbean and examples of what they like in terms of detailing, colors and textures. I use that information to create a design that is innovative, contemporary and efficient – a house unlike any the client has ever known."

In the late 1990s, Watson purchased a lot at Rosemary Beach and built his own home there. "Because I was commuting back and forth so much," he says, "I thought it would be a good opportunity to use my house as a showcase of what I’m interested in as an architect, to use the house as sort of a field office to meet with clients and contractors, and also a place to spend some quiet working time designing at the beach."

Watson initially designed and built the carriage house in 2000. "The interesting thing about my design strategy there was that at Rosemary Beach, the carriage-house design code stipulates that the structure can be no larger than 22x22 ft. square. In general, what was done was a square box with a pyramid roof. Consciously looking for a building form that would be completely different, but still stay within the guidelines, I chose to do an offset gable, which has precedent in the Dutch Caribbean style. It produced a completely unique roof form from what is typically done at Rosemary Beach. That was the reason why, stylistically, that house and the subsequent main house are Dutch Caribbean – the plan diagram and building massing determined the architectural style."

The main house was completed two years ago. Like some of his designs at Seaside, it’s an "upside-down" house, with all of the bedrooms on the first floor and the main living spaces upstairs. Here, the plan takes advantage of the view – a long, linear community park in the village. The house is also sited on an unusually shaped lot; once again, Watson manipulated the plan and form to express the challenges of the lot. "The structure is divided into two massing forms – a one-story master-bedroom wing and a two-story mass that contains the foyer, guest bedrooms and the main living spaces on the second floor," he says. "Between these two masses is an entry garden courtyard that acts as a transition space between the public street and the private domain of the house."

Other notable projects within Rosemary Beach include the Malugen House – a 6,000-sq.ft. residence inspired by the Caribbean plantation house type – which won a 2004 Palladio Award and the Apel House (2003), a large French Caribbean-inspired house with a wraparound verandah overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and a private courtyard on the landward side.

Whether at Seaside, Rosemary Beach or Alys Beach – where he has two completed houses and a large live/work building in the design stage – Watson makes an effort to keep his designs simple. "Nearly all of my designs are composed of simple volumes and forms," he says. "That’s a personal preference of mine, because in these communities, there is a certain density of structures. I think that all of the buildings, collectively, need to calm down – they need to be simple to work effectively, to create calm street fronts and public spaces. I always strive for an efficient plan diagram that will result in a simple architectural form and interior volume – a concise building that will be a good neighbor to the street."

Achieving Character
Though the vast majority of his projects have been within New Urbanist developments, with the success of his designs at Seaside and Rosemary Beach Watson has recently seen an increase in non-New Urbanist commissions. "I’m taking some of the ideas of building form, composition and public/private domain from New Urbanist communities and applying them to these other projects," he says. The Hardiman House, a 10,000-sq.ft. residence on Tampa Bay, is in the final stages of construction. "The clients specifically did not want a Mediterranean-style house, which is the predominate architectural style in South Florida," says Watson. "They were interested in some of the courtyard houses that I had designed and were interested in building a house with a variety of authentic materials – traditional masonry with concrete stucco, cypress, brick, Spanish cedar – none of the synthetic materials that are commonly used in houses in this area."

Here, once again, the massing is reflective of the building program. The large two-story building mass fronts on Tampa Bay so the maximum number of spaces take advantage of the primary view. An internal courtyard provides light exposure to all of the rooms in the house. Because of its size, Watson manipulated the massing so that it appears modest from the street. The house has a Vermont slate roof, exposed rafter tails, plank shutters and cast-concrete Doric columns.

"What’s nice about using authentic construction materials is that, over time, they achieve even greater character," says Watson. "In my work, I’ve tried to revive the lost tradition of the expressive use of simple, durable materials and the construction details of traditional house building – exposed rafter tails for example, and real cedar siding. I use very little applied ornamentation, but instead let the ornamental detail be expressed through the construction detailing."

Other recent projects include a brick country house in Lynn Haven, FL, which is a collection of simple forms enclosing a garden courtyard, and a 14,000-sq.ft home on a wooded site in Tallahassee, FL – the second home that Watson has designed for the client. While there has been an increasing demand for his talents outside of New Urbanist developments, the majority of his work remains within them – thus his future is closely allied with the future of New Urbanism. "There is a certain efficiency in the New Urbanist movement – less reliance on the car, sustainability and increased social interaction," he says. "It’s so wasteful of these large McMansions with their use of land and space. Your lot may be very small in a New Urbanist development, but you have a very large public realm that everyone can use collectively. And certainly with the current energy crisis, they’ve become more and more attractive."  

 

 

 
 

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