Travel + Leisure magazine has just named Charleston the best city in the world. Of course all it takes is one brief visit here to understand how distinctive Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry is. This uniqueness translates into some architectural and stylistic adaptations to life here along the Southeast coast.
Adapting to the terrain in the Lowcountry
You may have wondered why this region is called the Lowcountry. All along the coastal plain, the land elevation is rarely more than 20 feet above sea level. Aeons ago this plain was part of the ocean floor. As the prehistoric oceans receded they left behind a flat land expanse which parallels the Atlantic Ocean.
Today much of Charleston lies at sea level. Homes built near the ocean, along tidal rivers, near the marsh or in a very low areas are frequently elevated on pilings to avoid periodic coastal flooding which may occur seasonally with the new moon or the full moon. Much of the Lowcountry is zoned according to FEMA charts based on flood elevation. In these areas new homes are built on pilings or elevated foundations to keep them high and dry.
Set a spell on a porch or piazza
Like many houses built in sub-tropical places around the world, houses in Charleston frequently have porches on the front or the side of the residence. Many new houses often have a screened porch.
These days, everyone desires to have an outdoor living area for casual gathering, entertaining or relaxing. Because of this, Lowcountry homebuilders are including double porches, screened porches and verandahs on the houses they build.
In downtown Charleston porches on the side of the house are called piazzas. New construction homes in the Lowcountry may offer this feature.
Whether open or screened, porches are an enjoyable place for rocking, telling tales, and sipping a glass of sweet tea. Serving as outdoor living rooms, porches are the perfect gathering spot.
According to Lowcountry lore, ceilings of piazzas are frequently painted pale blue green-- also called “haint” blue. The Gullah Geechee people who are descendants of enslaved Africans, used this color to ward off ghosts or hags. Today we're often told that the light blue repels insects keeping them away from you as you enjoy your porch. And since we've never experienced a ghost or a haint on our porch, we trust that haint blue works.
Lowcountry home builders often use haint blue on porches on new homes, not for their evil spirit repellent properties, but because it creates a lovely atmosphere.
The other distinction of Charleston's side porches, called piazzas, is their slope. The pitch of the porch floor on a Charleston single house is fairly steep to prevent collection of standing water resulting from summer thunderstorms.
The Charleston single house as a design reference in new home building
The Charleston single house is a house designed with the gable end fronting the street. Houses built with this configuration are very common in the Bahamas and Bermuda. Early seventeenth-century Charleston residents emigrated from these tropical islands and brought building styles with them. In some parts of the world like Louisiana these are referred to as “shotgun” houses, a curious moniker to be sure. According to a citation in Wikipedia, “the term "shotgun" is a reference to the idea that if all the doors are opened, a shotgun blast fired into the house from the front doorway will fly cleanly to the other end and out at the back.” Unlike a traditional shotgun house, Charleston single houses have a staircase in the center of the house rather than in a side hall paralleling the long end of the house which is common in a shotgun house.
Charleston piazzas and northside manners
Charleston single houses are generally aligned so that the porch side is toward the south or the west and shields the house from the greatest heat of the day. The other side of the house, referred to as the northside, doesn't usually have too many windows and overlooks your neighbor’s porch. A long time ago people in Charleston talked about “northside manners” to explain the deliberate avoidance of peering in at your neighbors as they enjoyed the privacy of their piazza.
The past is present in new home construction in Charleston
Not only was the Charleston single house popular over a hundred years ago, it's really popular today. Lots of home builders in Lowcountry have floor plans and elevations (the house’s front face) with stylistic references to the Charleston single house. As you conduct your search for a new home in the area you'll find home plans that are designed in keeping with the Charleston style.
Natural ways to avoid the heat in southern homes
High ceilings are common in old southern houses and that's just as true in the Lowcountry as it is in Baton Rouge or Atlanta. Before the advent of air conditioning in homes, high ceilings helped homeowners keep cooler. Hot summer air rises inside a house and collects near the ceiling, yielding temperatures near the floor that are slightly cooler. Contemporary home builders — in keeping with the Charleston tradition — frequently construct their houses with high ceilings. It's not uncommon in new homes in the Lowcountry that the ceiling height in the main rooms will be ten feet.
Victorian ornamentation on new home exteriors
Summerville, Moncks Corner, and the Old Village of Mount Pleasant are places where Victorian style homes are common. Homebuilders building in these communities lend their homes a vernacular feeling by adding elements of Victorian ornamentation, giving a sense of local place to these modern homes. Scrolled corner brackets on porch supports, fancy shingled gables and ornamental trim are all used on new homes in the Lowcountry where builders want to create unity with past architectural styles.
Find your own touch of Lowcountry history in your new home
As you go about your search for a new home in the Lowcountry, see how many of these influences you find on the houses you look at. You may just find that your perfect new home owes much to Charleston history.
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. Our online resources are a complement to our magazine which is distributed FREE throughout the Lowcountry. 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.