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Concrete Ideas

Project: Pensione Bed & Breakfast, Rosemary Beach, FL

Architects: Trelles Architects, Miami, FL

By Martha McDonald

Located on Florida's panhandle, the village of Rosemary Beach is following in the footsteps of nearby Seaside. Both were designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk following New Urbanist principles. Two of the pioneers in both of these communities are Mark and Penny Dragonette. The couple had owned a bed and breakfast in Seaside for several years when the developers of Rosemary Beach asked them to come to the new community. They decided to make the move and are now the owners of the Pensione, a bed and breakfast in Rosemary Beach that was designed following both Classical styling and New Ur-banist principles.

The Dragonettes called in Trelles Architects of Miami, FL, to design the new mixed-use building, the same firm that had designed their first building in Seaside 10 years earlier. While the Seaside building had been mixed use, with an art gallery, a coffee shop, one room to rent and living quarters for the owners, the couple decided to focus more on the bed-and-breakfast aspect of the business in Rosemary Beach. They purchased a lot on Main Street facing the village green just yards from the Gulf of Mexico and asked Trelles to design a four-story building that would house a bed and breakfast along with a restaurant on the ground floor and living quarters on the top floor.

"We were inspired by Classical architecture and also by the vernacular architecture in the region, in towns such as De Funiak Springs and Apalachicola," says Jorge Trelles, who, along with his brother Luis Trelles and his wife, Maritere Trelles-Cabarrocas, is a partner in the firm. "This Classical architecture is linked to the South, to the Ante Bellum and plantation cultures. These are old towns with Classical elements. You find red brick buildings on the main streets. We saw this as a Classical brick-red building. The elements such as the big pediment on the façade and the proportions of the cornice give it a timeless quality."

In addition to its proportions, the building also embraces a Classical philosophy – it is built to last hundreds of years. This was accomplished by using relatively new, yet tried-and-tested materials such as concrete, stucco and aluminum. "We have traveled to Italy to study Classical architecture," says Luis Trelles, "but we build with concrete and stucco."

This building is also unusual in that the owners played a large role in the construction, as did the architects. Mark Dragonette, an experienced carpenter and a concrete expert, led and completed the carpentry for the building, including the formwork for the concrete elements, while Penny was the project manager. She purchased materials, paid contractors and worked with the developer and lenders.

"We had a smaller building in Seaside that Luis and Jorge had developed for us," says Penny Dragonette. "After a trip to Italy, we decided we wanted a small family-owned operation and the bed and breakfast had worked out beautifully in Seaside. We gave Trelles Architects the directives and then let them go with the design."

The original drawings featured a double gable roof, but this was changed to a single gable with large dormers on the east and west sides of the roof. The simpler design allows more room on the top floor, a bedroom under one dormer and a kitchen under the other, and also creates a single roofline with the street and nearby buildings that were to come. Although the Pensione was one of the first buildings in Rosemary Beach, it is now one inch from the next building and ends a row of traditionally styled mixed-use structures with zero-lot lines.

The 32-ft.-wide by 40-ft.-deep building reaches the maximum allowable height in the county, making it four stories tall. The first floor comprises a restaurant, Onano, named after the city in Italy where Mark's grandparents are from, and a large kitchen. The second and third floors are identical, each including four rental rooms with private baths. One unit on each of these floors is ADA compliant. Each unit has two windows with views either of the Gulf of Mexico or architectural vistas. The top floor is the owners' apartment. The building includes an elevator, but it is designed around a central staircase.

While the Pensione appears to be a Classically styled older building made of historical materials, it is, in fact, a masonry and concrete building, engineered to withstand not only the ravages of time but also the 150 mile-per-hour winds that Florida's hurricane season can deliver. "It was built with longevity in mind," says Penny Dragonette. "A lot of people would say that it's overbuilt, or over-engineered, but we were impressed with the buildings in Italy that are built to last, so we felt it was really important to build a structure that will last 200 to 300 years."

A number of factors contribute to the building's strength and to the strength of its design. As for durability, the architects specified a concrete structure, using the material to provide a Classical appearance. "Our work in general," says Jorge Trelles "is always intended to be seen as a product of the modern day, but we are influenced by the places we have visited and we are very comfortable with the Classical language."

The walls are masonry and poured concrete. The concrete for each floor and staircase was poured together all at once to provide additional strength. "We would pour a floor and a set of stairs all in one," says Mark Dragonette. "So it gives it tremendous strength." He adds that the increase in strength started with the caissons under the building. "We used concrete instead of wood pilings. We didn't want wood under the building. Then, on top of that, the entire 32x40-ft. slab is 20 in. thick." The second, third and fourth floors in the building are hollow-core precast paneling, with a four-in. concrete pour on top of each floor.

Other elements built for strength include six decorative concrete screens, three on the east side of the building and three on the west side, which provide ventilation and light. Mark and Penny built these themselves using 4,000-psi concrete with fiberglass rebar. "The panels are three inches thick and because we are so close to the salt water, we knew these could rust from within and break up in 25 or 30 years if we used steel rebar in the concrete. We didn't want that to happen, so we used the fiberglass rebar," says Mark.

One of the notable features of the building is its cornice. It was designed by the architects with painted magnolias, a local flower, in the coffers. Significantly, it was built of concrete by Mark Dragonette and was done in a single pour, so it is one solid piece.

Mark built the forms for the cornice from furniture-grade birch plywood. "This is a smooth, ¾-in. wood that is used to make the boxes in cabinets," he says. "The reason I did this is that there is so much detail in the pour and I wanted a smooth finish with zero restoration. So I spent a little more time and money on the formwork, and prevented a lot of time in restoration later." He built 74 identical brackets for the form of the poured-in-place 11-cubic-yard cornice.

The cornice is actually a structural tie-beam with architectural façade. "We used 6,000-psi architectural concrete mix, which is a very smooth mix," Mark says. Once the forms were built, it took Mark about a month to assemble the cornice form and do the pour. "It went well and when we took it apart we had zero restoration," he says. "It's straight as an arrow."

Once it was poured, the concrete cornice was painted, using lime-based paint specified by Luis and Jorge Trelles. Mark made the paint, including the white background and the gold, green and blue used in the flowers, to Penny's specifications, which followed the architects' specifications. "The hardest color was the blue," Mark says. "We wanted to match the Florida sky, but it's a different blue every day." The painters then went to work painting the more than 70 magnolia motifs in the coffers of the cornice. "I had five painters up there using 16-in.-long artist brushes," Mark points out. "It had to be perfect. It took them about seven days to do the painting."

"Luis and Jorge wanted the cornice and all of the details poured in place. No corner bead could be used on the exterior building edges," Mark adds. "These methods take longer, but it's a better way to build. These buildings will last hundreds of years, as opposed to the styrofoam used on some buildings outside of Rosemary Beach."

The Pensione structure has two primary facades. "The building turns a corner," says Luis Trelles. "The front for the roof is the cornice and the Palladian window while the front for the street is the restaurant."

Another important part of the exterior is the stucco finish. The red pigment was incorporated into the stucco, rather than painted on later. "The Trelleses handed us a red brick and said the building should be this color," Mark says. "They also specified a steel-trowel finish." This stucco finish was done by one person, Andy Shufflebotham, working with one helper. "The corners are perfectly straight," Mark says, "and it achieved our goal of making it look like a 100-year-old building."

The sign for the building is in the shape of an arrow and is attached to the corner of the building with half-in. stainless-steel brackets. Designed by Trelles Architects using Roman manuscript letters, it was built of ¼-in.-thick sheet aluminum by a local craftsman, Steve Dorriety, a master metal fabricator and welder. "If you stand on top of the hill in the plaza and look down Merchant Street, you will see that the arrow just touches the horizon, the Gulf of Mexico," says Jorge Trelles.

The canopies – one over the outdoor portion of the restaurant and a smaller one over the entrance to the Pensione – were also designed by the architects and made of aluminum by the same craftsman. "We used a modern material to withstand corrosion," says Luis Trelles, "but these canopies are designed to look like fabric, like they droop over the edges."

The building also has two dependencies, a one-story wooden building for equipment and parking for a truck and a smaller building at the back for waste receptacles. Completed in 2001 after two years of design and construction, the Pensione was the first building in Rosemary Beach's downtown, except for the city hall. Since then, the New Urbanist development has filled in, with the Pensione terminating a row of buildings and facing another row. Its corner position and its proximity to the village green give it more light and exposure that most others.

"The beauty of this is that it is the beginning of an urban place," says Luis Trelles. "It is bound to be something beautiful. We cherish these projects because we consider the panhandle of Florida to be the cradle of the New Urbanism, and that is very significant." TB

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