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Architect About Town

Learning from Crackers

Architect About Town - Special to the Fort Myers News-Press

Is there an architecture native to Southwest Florida? And can we learn anything from it that’s relevant to today’s world?

Shortly after I moved to Fort Myers 20 years ago, my brother asked me to design a house for his family on Sanibel Island. I had just graduated from architecture school, and together we decided that his family needed a contemporary house that would fit into the island surroundings and respond to the local climate. 

I started by looking backwards to an impossibly primitive era, a time that predated the invention of screens and air conditioning. Imagine! How had people survived? With its insects, excessive heat, humidity and subtropical rains, Florida has never offered settlers a comfortable climate.

But in that year, my research ran parallel to my own life — I was living in an apartment in a 1920s building with no air conditioning. For two years, I had to rely on the simple common sense principles used by those early settlers: 1. Maximize shade and 2. Maximize natural ventilation.

Like the very earliest inhabitants of Florida, I had to work alongside nature, not against it.

In the early 19th century, when large landowners from the North sought Seminole Indian land, a series of conflicts with American troops drove the native inhabitants from their permanent homes toward the Everglades. There, they constructed temporary open structures known as chickee (the Seminole word for house). Chickee were quick to build and easy to abandon, with steeply pitched thatched palm roofs and raised floors to provide cooling and protection from floods, insects and snakes.

In the decades that followed, other white settlers arrived in Florida. Known as Cracker farmers after the cracked corn that made up the majority of their diet, they copied principles of shade and ventilation from the simple shelters of the Seminoles, raising their floors off the ground to avoid flooding and allowing cooler air to circulate beneath the house. Tall, double-hung windows were strategically located to provide continuous cross-ventilation, and steep gabled roofs allowed the warmer air to rise out of living spaces.

Originally designed as a single room, these modified versions of the chickee structures would have been located on higher ground and oriented to minimize direct sunlight, to take full advantage of ventilation, and to utilize nearby trees’ shade.

Characteristically, these houses had deep front porches covered by large overhanging roofs to protect them from the searing sun. Steeper pitches on these roofs allowed them to shed the subtropical rains more easily.

Common to all of these houses were the materials used: wood framing made from the tall straight pines felled to clear the land, horizontal cypress siding inside and out, and metal roofs. At the time, cypress was plentiful and had extra benefits as a building material — it contains a natural preservative oil (cypressene) that renders it relatively resistant to rot and insects. Metal roofs were cheap, readily available, and — at least before they rusted — reflective of sunlight. 

So as to our first question: Is there an architecture native to Southwest Florida? The answer is that Cracker and chickee structures are the original vernacular. Designed for function rather than beauty, these buildings were not self-consciously styled. 

And more to the point, they were energy efficient because they had to be. Early pioneer families were able to survive in our harsh climate without air conditioning by incorporating simple passive solar and ventilation principles, just as I did in my airy apartment on the second floor. Luckily, the architect who designed my building understood these concepts, and most of the time it was remarkably liveable (let’s be fair, sometimes even air conditioning can’t make the heat in Southwest Florida bearable).

Learn from the past. Borrow from what works. Steal a good idea. These are principles that architects live by. And for my brother’s house, I did all three.

By this time, all my research had equipped me to propose a cost-effective and energy-efficient design for the new house. Not that I expected my brother and his family to live without air conditioning, but by incorporating proven architectural ideas from the past, they could rely on it less. And the benefit was that I was able to maximize the effect of natural air conditioning (Gulf breezes) more often than not.

The result was a simple island house, combining the practical elements of Florida Cracker buildings with contemporary modern architecture. 

For me, this house marked the beginning of a lifelong interest in exploring a new vernacular for Florida — an energy-efficient theory of design nearly abandoned since the invention of the air conditioner, yet which also acknowledges the latest advances in technology.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA