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Lowcountry home terms; a glossary of unique features

August 27, 2019

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Across the United States, various locales have distinctive building styles. In Baltimore, the row house is a common building style. In the Midwest, there lots of mid-century modern houses that evidence Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1950s streamlined design. In California and Florida, there are many Spanish inspired houses with clay tile roofs and stucco exteriors. And in Arizona and New Mexico you find pueblo revival or Santa Fe style homes.
Here in the Lowcountry, there are numbers of very distinctive homes. The most typical is the Charleston single house. For more information, read our article about this home. Frequently what stands out to new Charleston area residents are the porches on these houses. Called piazzas, they run along the side of the house and provide a cool, airy place to sit in the heat of the summer and also serve to shade the side of the house oriented towards the sun.
Just as other locales have their distinctive styles whose terms you learn as you immerse yourself in the community, so does Charleston. We’ve mentioned single houses and piazzas, but what other designs and features are common on homes here? As you go out shopping for your new home, these words might sound odd at first. Inform yourself with their definitions and sail through the search for your new Charleston home like a native.


A lexicon of unique Charleston home terms

What is a FROG? — Nope, there are no frogs in this room, despite being named with this acronym. Short for “finished room over the garage” you find these bonus rooms in homes of all designs. In an online forum, PalmettoGuy writes, “the “F” stands for “finished,” as opposed to an unfinished space used as an attic. Many home listings will count the FROG as a bedroom if it has a closet. Otherwise, it's usually listed as a bonus room.” According to Jim and Maria Hart, “In the early 1970s, builders in the Charleston area starting dropping the ceiling in the garage to create space for a room — sometimes unfinished (UnFROG) and sometimes finished (FROG) in order to add value to their homes. The only access to this room was typically through the garage or laundry room. This room is unique to Charleston.” Realtor Stan Huff says that his buyers many of whom relocate to the area to work with Boeing have never heard of FROGs before. No matter what you call them, bonus rooms and flex spaces are tops on the list of homebuyers.


This outdoor living space is a ‘tip of the hat’ to Hawaii

What is a Lanai? — Simply defined, a lanai is a veranda, often a furnished one which is used as an outdoor living space. The word and room itself is Hawaiian. In the 1980s they became more familiar to residents of California and Florida. The word and room came to prominence on the television show Golden Girls. In a very famous episode, Blanche bemoans her ex-husband’s sudden appearance and gets a riposte from guest star Sonny Bono to which she retorts, “Sonny Bono, ‘Get off my lanai!’” Despite their association with television comedy, lanais are now a common feature on Lowcountry homes. Often these outdoor rooms are formed by the three walls and a roof of the house with the fourth “wall” being open space to the yard. Lanais are both sheltered and open, private and social spaces to enjoy our subtropical climate.


Why are the houses sideways in Charleston?

What is a Charleston-Single house?— Charleston’s contribution to the history of architecture is a form of house ideally suited for the heat and humidity and the colonial town’s narrow building lots. A single room wide with high ceilings, these narrow houses are built on brick piers elevating them above grade and are sheltered by piazzas on the south or west. They are almost always three stories high on an elevated basement. Situated close to the street, they are placed right on the sidewalk. To enter a single house, you enter the piazza and then enter the door into the home’s central stairwell. The piazza entrance is referred to by some as a hospitality door, though this is not a valid term.
The Charleston Single house design allows breezes to flow through the house without restriction since they are only a single room wide and 2 rooms deep. The high ceilings take advantage of the laws of physics, allowing hot air to rise, leaving the floors cooler. Windows opened in third floor rooms create convection, making these homes exceptionally well ventilated.
Another unique feature of Charleston Single Homes is that they are generally do not have attics. Storage space is sometimes the grade level “basement” area under the home.
Frequently adapted by today’s builders, you’ll find single houses from Mount Pleasant to Summerville.


The Lowdown on the Lowcountry

What is the Charleston Lowcountry? — Most of the coastal plain of South Carolina lies at sea level. In the area of Charleston, there are numerous creeks and marshes contiguous with the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. During high tide, the waters of the ocean, rise into the creeks and marshes, where countless species of marine animals thrive. Marshes are home to Blue Crab, oysters, spot tail bass, and many more species. Only when you travel inland about 40 miles do you find modest hills. This part of the state of South Carolina is called “The Lowcountry”. Historically it was colonized permanently by the British in 1670, though there were preceding settlements here by both the French and the Spanish.
South Carolina Lowcountry Map

“Map showing the counties included in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton, and Jasper Counties, in dark red, are always included in the definition. Berkeley, Charleston, and Dorchester Counties, in lighter red, are often included; and Allendale, Georgetown, and Williamsburg Counties, in pink, are sometimes included.”
According to Wikipedia the Lowcountry “is a geographic and cultural region along South Carolina's coast, including the Sea Islands. ...the Lowcountry today is known for its historic cities and communities, natural environment, cultural heritage, and tourism industry.”
Being that this is the Lowcountry, the water table is high. Because of this, there are no basements in homes in the area. Homes built in areas which are in flood zones per FEMA maps are required to be elevated. These houses look like they are sitting on stilts. However, their elevation protects them from flooding as well as defining a sheltered space under the house where you can store things or place sitting areas. But in high risk flood zones, they may contain no grade level permanent, enclosed living space.
Elevated homes at the beach or in areas rated as high risk V Zones [Coastal flood with velocity hazard (wave action); no base flood elevations determined] have breakaway walls in the areas underneath the house per FEMA guidelines. Such walls are designed to give way in flood surges without damaging the house.
Realtor Claire Porter said that she has helped buyers who are moving here from other areas of the United States and these folks are concerned with the lack of basements. However, Porter observes, “Of course we don’t have basements here because we are so close to sea level. The industry joke is that a basement here would be just an in-ground pool.”
To compensate for the lack of basements, homeowners frequently use their garages like attics or in the case of elevated homes, the area underneath the house but at grade.


The Charleston version of a tiny home

What is a Shotgun style home? — A shotgun style house is one which features an arrangement of rooms with either a side hall or no hall where the rooms are connected one to another. The old saying is that a shotgun fired through the front door would not hit a wall (because all rooms are open one to another.) Per Wikipedia, “A ‘shotgun house’ is a narrow rectangular domestic residence, usually no more than about 12 feet wide, with rooms arranged one behind the other and doors at each end of the house. It was the most popular style of house in the Southern United States from the end of the American Civil War through the 1920s.”

In historic Charleston, there are many examples of shotgun style homes. Many of the freedman’s cottages built in the years after the Civil War were this style. Most of them are very small, small enough to qualify as tiny houses with generally less than 500 square feet.
The Charleston “Freedman's Cottage”: An Architectural Tradition, By Lissa D'Aquisto Felzer, introduction notes, “Charleston's ‘freedman's cottages’ are some of the most understudied and undervalued vernacular buildings in the city, found as far south as Council Street and as far north as North Charleston.”
Felzer writes in her survey of these homes, “‘Freedman's cottages’ are one-room wide, single-story dwellings with side piazzas and a gable roof. They are occasionally described by architectural historians as a subset of the Charleston single house.” She goes on to say that not always resided in by freed slaves, they were built and owned by and for all ethnicities of people and are just as frequently called Charleston cottages.
Freedmans Cottage Book Cover


Put your Lowcountry insights to work in your house hunt

With your newly acquired understanding of Charleston’s unique architectural influences, you will be able to amaze your Realtor with your knowledge and information as you sail through your Lowcountry house hunt.
Start your new home search by narrowing down your preferred area using our Guide.



Thank you for reading and sharing our articles from The Greater Charleston New Homes Guide. Our business is to know Charleston, SC's new home construction, home builders, neighborhoods and homes so we may assist you as you take your new construction home journey. Please take the time to explore our library of helpful tips, guides and insights. The Greater Charleston New Homes Guide is considered the most comprehensive and reliable resource to new home construction, builders, neighborhoods and homes throughout the Lowcountry.

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