Nowadays, everyone has a picture of the Wright Flyer on both his North Carolina license plate and his driver’s license, but I fell in love with the Flyer when I was a 9-year-old living at the beach. My family stayed all summer in a pine-paneled cottage at Long Beach, N.C. Tacked to a board over the living room sofa was a photograph of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first airplane, flying at Kitty Hawk in 1903. It was amazing to think that aviation began on a sand dune on the Outer Banks. I loved the kite-like reediness of the plane, poised like a gull above the sea oats of Kitty Hawk. Later, as an architect, I saw the Wright Flyer as an ideal of construction: lightweight and strong, a structure doing the most with the least.
Near Kitty Hawk at Nags Head, a cluster of flimsy cottages built in the 1880s are poised on stilts near the sea, catching the same breeze that held the Wright Flyer aloft. These rustic cottages seem to hover over the sand, and seawater sometimes flows between their stilts. Their shingle-clad walls conceal a surprising resilience, with pine boards mortised together like the timbers on a boat. Raleigh author Jonathan Daniels called them the “unpainted aristocracy” because of their juniper shingles, weathered grey for generations.
Unpretentious, durable structures like the Nags Head cabins were the pattern of North Carolina beach architecture for over 100 years: relaxed, easy to repair, and no great loss should they blow away. But recently, the Outer Banks have begun to fill with improbably large and luxurious houses, sprawling across the dunes and blocking the view of the ocean. Nosing up to the surf like massive SUVs, many of the newer houses are prone to disaster, suffering more damage during Hurricanes Fran and Floyd than traditional cottages. To some, the “unpainted aristocracy” may look old-fashioned, but as resilient structures they preach a sermon about building responsibly on the edge of the ocean.
I notice that taking cues from local, traditional building patterns to make modern buildings works well for other architects. Glenn Murcutt, for example, orients his contemporary houses in Australia to the sun and wind in the same way the aborigines do. Bryan Mackay-Longs builds wooden cottages in Nova Scotia using tools and techniques of traditional boat builders. Marion Blackwell in Arkansas uses poles and corrugated metal siding to create simple houses that are as at home in the Ozarks as a dog trot cabin, yet comfortably modern.
As an architect, I find it reassuring to look at traditional structures to see what works. On the Outer Banks, summer winds blow from the south and southwest, while winds blow from the northeast in late summer and winter. A porch on the south side of a cottage to catch the breeze, and a nearly windowless wall on the north side, makes just as much sense now as it did 100 years ago.
In this article, I will illustrate how traditional building patterns of the Outer Banks can be given a modern twist, by comparing the Wainwright vacation house on the Bogue Banks that I designed a few years ago with the Winston House, a member of the “unpainted aristocracy,” built in 1875.
The Winston House belongs to Betty Silver, whose grandfather built it as a summer retreat for his family. “You wouldn’t dare stay there in the winter,” Silver says. “It had no bathrooms, no closets. It was just a shack.”
Steve and Ruth Wainwright’s new beach house had to be designed to accommodate their growing family of children and grandchildren. All the Wainwrights have a passion for nature. They warned me, with a smile, that their cottage would soon fill up with “dead things.” The house could be spare, “but give us lots of windows to the breeze,” Steve requested. “And I don’t want to lose sleep during the hurricane season.”
In 1875, Silver’s grandfather had the luxury of open space. On a nearly empty shore he built the Winston cottage on stilts, several hundred feet from the Atlantic Ocean. Over the years, the house has been moved inland as the sea advanced. At first it was moved on logs pulled by mules. In 1998, it was moved with a truck.
The Wainwright site is a maritime forest on 5,000-year-old sand dunes facing Bogue Sound. Though the family wanted to build close to the water, I recommended building the house 15 feet above the sound on a sandy ridge. Since a 100-year storm surge can be 8 feet above sea level, building on the ridge kept the house out of harm’s way. The Wainwrights park their cars at water level, climb steps through the live oaks and pine trees, and arrive at their front porch. The Wainwright house is sheltered by the maritime forest, and we took great pains to save it. “Trees buffer wind energy and provide excellent protection from flying debris during hurricanes,” writes Orrin H. Pilkey in The North Carolina Shore and Its Barrier Islands. Besides, having the bedrooms in the trees was just the thing for a family of birdwatchers.
“Every room has three-way exposure,” Betty Silver says of the Winston House. “The house is just one room deep. It’s air conditioned by nature.” For generations, people have gone to the beach to escape the inland heat. The scent and gentle warmth of the summer wind flows through our dreams. Yet increasingly, vacationers live in the same air-conditioned world at the beach that they live in at home. “One does not need the air-tight shelter one has in winter,” writes Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Gift From the Sea. “I want windows open all the time, and I don’t want to worry about rain.”
Beneficial summer winds flow from the south and southwest along the coast. Coast Guard weather records confirmed that the prevailing wind on the Wainwright land was southwest. To capture the breeze I designed a long, thin, two-story house with its broad side to the wind. The breeze flows through casement windows on both sides of every room. I protected each window with a roof or trellis overhang of 4 feet so that the Wainwrights could leave the windows open, go sailing, and not worry about a thunderstorm getting their house wet. At night the sounds of crickets and tree frogs drift through the house. One night I listened as watermen pulled in their nets, their voices bouncing across the sound like stones skipping on water.
The Winston House has porches on the south and east sides, as do many of the “unpainted aristocracy.” The south-facing porch is most useful because it’s shady all day, but summer storms blow out of the south. So on a rainy day the east porch is a cool, dry haven.
At the Wainwright house, I designed the screen porch on the northeast side, with deep overhangs. It’s never been wet.
Building at the coast can be daunting. Hurricane winds can exceed 120 mph, with enough force to flatten buildings. The “unpainted aristocracy” have survived because they were built like boats–indeed, their shingles are made of the same juniper wood used to build shrimp boats. The timbers of these old houses are mortised together from the roof ridge to the floor beams and stilts.
The best storm insurance for the Wainwrights was hiring engineer T.C. Howard of Raleigh to calculate their house structure. Howard designed a sturdy post-and-beam frame of wood, anchored to concrete piers. The frame allowed us to position windows for maximum light, ventilation and views. “The biggest problem at the coast is a house blowing away like a tumbleweed,” he said when he showed us his design for the concrete pier foundations, extending 30 feet down into the sand. For less than one percent of the cost of their house, the Wainwrights built a structure engineered to last.
Silver stayed in her grandfather’s cottage “from the day school was out to the day school started.” Her mother told visitors, “If there’s not enough space to hang clothes, drive a nail into the wall. You can’t hurt the house.” Living in the Winston House was a lot like camping out, illustrated by its modest scale and unpretentious character. “We didn’t have to dress up for anything,” Silver says.
Both the Winston House and the Wainwright cottage are about one-third the size of their owners’ permanent homes. The rooms are small and spare, but they lie open to the wind, the sun, and the scent of wax myrtle. The houses are bare, and in bareness is their beauty, a choice between simplicity and complication. Thought of in this way, a beach house can be as delightful as a kite or a seashell, reminding us of the joy and simplicity of vacation.
After the Wainwright house was finished, I stood talking with Steve on his screened porch. I told him of my fascination with the Wright Flyer, and how it thrilled me as a child. He knew what I meant. “My grandfather made the chains that drove the propellers on the Wright Flyer,” he said. Orville’s flight off a solitary North Carolina dune represented change that transformed the world. The unpainted cabins of Nags Head, shaped for reasons of climate and place, may yet change the way we view architecture.