Contemporary house on Seabrook feels like an extension of the sky and the beach

By Sybil Fix, Special to The Post and Courier, Feb 6 2016 2:00 pm

Lynn and Todd Lillibridge have always felt inspired by contemporary houses with wide-open spaces that draw in the light and make one with the outside world. From the mountains of Colorado to Lake Michigan, they have built such homes and loved them.

When they bought an oceanfront property on Seabrook Island in 2011, they felt called to do it again. “The lot and the view were perfect,” said Lynn. “It was a natural.”

Enter Jim Thomas of Thomas & Denzinger Architects. They visited the firm’s website and felt a connection to Thomas’ vision and taste. Over a decades-long career, Thomas, a native South Carolinian, has dotted the Southern coastal landscape with high-end, clean-lined, light-filled contemporary architecture that he describes as nature-inspired and site-specific.

“A piece of architecture should bring you to the site, making the experience of being in that place more vivid and more intense,” said Thomas. “I see the house as being a vehicle for bringing us in contact with nature, particularly a dramatic nature like a beach.”

When you turn on Pompano Court, the concrete, steel and glass house — the only one of its kind on Seabrook Island and well-received by the design authorities there — rises from the landscape like an extension of sky and beach, self-possessed and natural. Paradoxically, for all its starkly contemporary materials, it seems born of the landscape, a native meant to reside there.

“The way you experience the outside while you are inside is what the house is all about,” said Thomas.

His quest, now realized, is fulfilled. The house, said Lynn, draws her in and holds her there.

“When I am there, I don’t even want to hear the news or go anywhere,” she said. “I feel like I can take the time to really appreciate what surrounds me.”

After visiting the site and meeting with the Lillibridges, Thomas began pondering the property and the landscape — the sun, the breezes, the coastline — in relation to their demands for space. The couple from Chicago wanted flowing spaces for entertaining and lots of clear views.

“We’ve always had a strong belief that 70 to 80 percent of a house should have a view of the ocean or whatever the surrounding landscape is,” said Todd.

“We’re not big fans of walls,” added Lynn.

The result articulates their wishes. The four-bedroom, 5,200-square-foot house offers majestic unfettered floor-to-sky views of the landscape from nearly every room. Living room, dining room and kitchen, bathed in light and open to ceilings that rise up to 24 feet, share one grand space quietly spliced on different plains like floating platforms, creating a textured dynamic between the spaces and a sense of descending from the entrance toward the beach and the ocean.

A soaring rectangular passageway or gallery runs through the house from the entrance all the way to the rear deck. Its aesthetic role in the architectural sequence of experiences, said Thomas, is to dramatize the sense of procession toward the beach, and beyond, the ocean, as one moves through the house.

The house’s outer skin streetside is mostly concrete, though broken by glass. Oceanside, it’s mostly glass. The outside world is as present as the people in the room or the deer on the dunes: the ocean waves curl off in the distance; the light at dusk morphs and dances on the horizon.

Throughout, bluestone floors and concrete inner walls merge with the concrete outside. Glass lets the outside in, everywhere, even in the bathrooms. Glass-walled showers and polished fixtures shine against the rough-edged concrete walls. Walnut floors meet the concrete, marrying the polished and unpolished.

Upstairs, doorways open to bedrooms offering wide-angle views of the water and the coast moving away. Guest suites, recessed from the main house, offer a private view of the landscape and a look back into the house through its glass walls.

One cannot escape the light or the beckoning of the view, inviting a visitor to sit motionless to watch the light change through the day, waiting for a sunrise and then a sunset. At night, said Lynn, it’s like a magic glowing glass box — nuanced lighting plays elegantly with the blunt concrete and the surrounding glass — and perfect for socializing.

A round dining room table designed by Thomas and fit for 12 features a 400-pound glass top sitting on a wood base that looks like a blossoming flower.

“I have counted seven places where people can sit and have a meal,” Todd said. “The first night we were here there was a crowd of 18 and it was neat to see how the people interacted in the space.”

And then there is the pool, the sweet spot of the Lillibridge house.

In his work, Thomas had previously used pools to connect or create relationship between two parts of a structure and the outside world. At the Lillibridges, the pool, almost a limb of the house, creates a relationship with the sky, house and sea that is breathtaking in its totality.

A narrow rectangular arm of water bisects the house, slicing it from the outside and running alongside the long inner gallery. The arm of water moves under the house and becomes part of it, creating a feeling of suspension, like floating over a landscape of water. Then, extending away from the house and toward the ocean, the narrow arm opens out into a perfect zero-edge pool, kissing the horizon.

Hidden cantilevered concrete breakaway walls carefully designed by project architect Joel Wenzel, a junior partner at the firm, allow for a seamless coupling of pool and house. There are no railings or borders or extraneous elements — just a polished slick of water seemingly all the way to the sea.

Inside, the staircase leading to the second floor travels playfully above the water; glass landings and railings and glass risers on the steps allow a full view of the water below, like a glass bridge.

“I had been using water before as a vehicle to connect house and distant views of rivers and the sky,” said Thomas. “In this house it went beyond that. … I wanted the water to come in and lap at your feet.”

He chuckled. “The house is a really a vehicle for designing a pool,” he said, laughing.

The Lillibridge house contains 2,600 square feet of glass, almost enough to cover a doubles tennis court. The owners wanted more glass, and only federal regulations thwarted them, they said.

“Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let us use bigger panels,” said Todd, looking through the wall of glass that separates the master bedroom from the outside world.

That much glass calls for weight — what Thomas calls gravitas — to survive on the dunes at the edge of the sea.

“Standing there with the wind blowing in, the water rolling in, there was something about the danger and vulnerability of the place that demanded strength in the structure, metaphorically speaking,” said Thomas.

Hence the power of steel and 500 cubic yards of concrete, almost 1,000 metric tons worth, poured in huge slabs 8 inches thick.

Thomas has designed houses in concrete before, though it is not traditionally used in residential projects. He likes it for its weightiness, though it’s not devoid of poetry: elevated on a dune at the beach’s edge, the concrete echoes the sand and draws from the brilliant green of aloe and bamboo now surrounding the house (landscape design by Wertimer & Associates).

Concrete creates a certain complexity. It is poured on site in commercial steel form; the weight is massive, the work exacting, and the effect dramatic.

“The way everything comes together is not your routine home … You can’t just saw something off if it’s wrong,” said Thomas. “You have all these technologies coming together … the materials are complex to deal with and there are fewer people who are competent to work with them. Just erecting the formwork for a job like this is a big job.”

But, he added with a chuckle, “When it’s done, it gets some respect!”

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