Brillhart House / Brillhart Architecture

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Brillhart House, Miami / Brillhart Architecture
Photograph © Stefani Fachini
Brillhart House, Miami / Brillhart Architecture
Photograph © Stefani Fachini

From the architect:
This 1,500 sf house, which draws upon the American glass pavilion typology, Dog Trot, and principles of Florida Modernism, provides a tropical refuge in Downtown Miami.
Elevated 5’ off the ground, the house includes 100 feet of uninterrupted glass – 50 feet spanning the length of the front and rear facades, with four sets of sliding glass doors that allow the house to be entirely open when desired. The house includes 800 sf of outdoor living space, with front and back porches and shuttered doors along the front for added privacy and protection against the elements. These details, and the position of the house, which is at the center of a 330-foot long lot, allow the house to meld seamlessly with the site’s dense and lush native landscaping.

As owners, architects and general contractors, we physically built most of the house ourselves. Tectonics, materiality and the logic of construction became of primary interest. In a part of the country where concrete is the primary construction material, we opted for a more sustainable steel and glass superstructure, explored a combination of wood finishes, and made continued investigations into construction assemblies and innovations.

Brillhart House, Miami / Brillhart Architecture
Photograph © Stefani Fachini

The design relies on a back-to-the-basics approach – specifically studying old architectural models that care about good form but are also good for something. Each design decision was organized around four central questions that challenge the culture for building big: what is necessary; how can we minimize our impact on the earth; how do we respect the context of the neighborhood; and what can we really build?

Old models for future buildings

• Dog Trot:
Some answers came from a place with which we are already intimately familiar – the seemingly forgotten American Vernacular, and more specifically, the Dog Trot, which for well over a century, has been a dominant image representing Florida Cracker architecture. The small, simple, and practical building is both modest and rich in cultural meaning. It attempts to maximize efficiency, space, and energy; relies on vernacular building materials; and celebrates the balmy breezes.

• The Glass Pavilion Typology and Tropical Modernism:
The glass pavilion typology and the principles of Tropical Modernism also provided direction. Thanks to a booming concrete industry in Miami’s backyard, Miami-Dade County has developed an almost relentless adherence to building in concrete, such that the idea of building in anything else would seem absurd. There is an unfounded, albeit pervasive, belief that the costs associated with building a residential project in steel and glass would be exorbitant; that there isn’t enough skilled labor on hand to build such projects, and so on. Ironically, we have old models from South Florida’s Tropical Modernists – dating back to the 1950s and ‘60s – of structures made of concrete, wood, steel, and hybrid systems. Simple, rational, efficient, cost-effective buildings that celebrate the tropics, these designs lend feasible and innovative alternatives for Miami’s future buildings.

Brillhart House, Miami / Brillhart Architecture
Photograph © Stefani Fachini

South Florida’s postwar architects – such as Alfred Browning Parker, Rufis Nims, Robert Bradford Browne, Mark Hampton, Paul Rudolf and Ralph Twitchell, William Morgan, Donald Singer, Gene Leedy, and others – gave birth to a tropical modern school of thought and developed their own regional interpretations of the International Style by turning to local landscape, climate and materials to inform their designs. In an era of optimism and experimentation, these architects married building traditions with passive systems, new technologies, and innovative construction techniques. Emphasis on construction methodology was central to their work and became a model for sustainable design in the tropics.

As part of our research, we analyzed the original construction documents from four residences built during South Florida’s Post-war period. First diagramming the design intent, we then made newly constructed axonometrics (shown above, left) that break down the material selections and systematic (architectonic) assemblies. As models, these four projects display an incredible range of materials and building systems. As a visual tool-kit, they served as a tremendous resource for us on this project.

Brillhart House, Miami / Brillhart Architecture
Photograph © Stefani Fachini

Construction and details:

• Steel and Glass Superstructure:
Harking back to the optimism and experimentation of South Florida’s postwar architecture, we sought an alternative to the use of concrete and concrete only, instead exploring steel and glass as the superstructure. As a result, we wasted fewer materials, simplified the assembly, and reduced the cost and time of construction, all the while allowing for increased cross ventilation and a heightened sense of living within the landscape.

• Glass and Insulation:

With today’s advances in thermal qualities of glass and insulation we were able to use the Tropical modern concepts alongside current Florida Building Code requirements. To meet and/or exceed the required R-Values, we included insulation on all six sides (icynene and rigid insulation); as well as 9/16″ thick thermal glass. We also had to design new assemblies in the process. For one, the new code just came out with requirements to insulate the floor if elevated. As this is a new requirement — we had to develop an entirely new floor detail – creating a sandwich with plywood underneath and on top of a layer of rigid insulation. Meanwhile, in order to achieve the R-Value on the roof and accommodate a slight slope, we designed a similar but inverse concept – installing tapered rigid insulation on the roof, with a layer of plywood underneath followed by icynine below.

Brillhart House, Miami / Brillhart Architecture
Photograph © Stefani Fachini

(The R-value is a measure of thermal resistance used in the building and construction industry. It is expressed as the thickness of the material divided by the thermal conductivity. The higher the number, the better the building insulation’s effectiveness. The design for the roof insulation resulted in a R-Value that exceeded what was required.)

• Off the Shelf Materials and Kit of Parts:
We aimed to use as many off the shelf materials as possible to keep the cost of the project down and developed a kit of parts.
– The depth of the house is 50 feet, which is based on the longest length of a steel beam that does not require an oversized road permit.
– The width of the house was adjusted to fit standard commercial storefront sliding doors.
– The structural spans were kept under 20 feet, therefore dimensional lumber (i.e. 2” x 8”, 2”x10” and 2”x12”) could span the flooring and roof systems.

Brillhart House, Miami / Brillhart Architecture
Photograph © Bruce Buck

• Wood as a Material:

– Exterior Siding: IPE
The exterior (siding, fascia and columns) is clad in Ipe. This dense hardwood works best in the tropical climates where termites and heavy rains dissuade most builders from using wood at all. Flat River Woodworking in Fort Lauderdale assisted us in purchasing the wood and gave us access to its millworking shop after hours. We spent three weeks – working late into the evenings – running each board through the planer and joiner. The boards were ship-lapped, giving the exterior a more modern look than the board-and-batten style cladding. The front and back steps were also made of 3” x 8’ ipe boards. The thickness provides tremendous strength, prevents sagging, and enhances the aesthetic.

– Exterior Shuttered Doors: WESTERN RED CEDAR
We built sixteen shuttered doors along the outer edge of the front porch for added privacy and protection against the elements. The shutters make the space much cooler while also allowing for cross breezes when the sliding glass doors are open behind. We used Western red cedar – as the species is also weather resistant, but much more lightweight and easier to work with than Ipe. In this case, no stain was used. The intent is to allow the Ipe and the Cedar to age into a similar silvery gray color over time. The light that filters through the shutters during the day is stunning. At night, the shutters are aglow from behind, creating the sense of a magical Japanese tea house.

Brillhart House, Miami / Brillhart Architecture
Photograph © Jake Brillhart

– Flooring and Decking: WHITE OAK AND CYPRESS
To seamlessly merge the indoors with the outdoors, we matched the interior flooring and outdoor decking as much as possible. The interior floors are 6” wide natural white oak floors, purchased directly from Tidewater Lumber, a saw mill in South Carolina. For consistency, we needed a light decking material, and opted for a select grade of cypress, purchased from a Florida based mill – Howell Logging, Inc. Both the interior and exterior woods were given the same color stain.

– Kitchens and Bathrooms: AMERICAN CHERRY
The species selection for the floors was predicated on the use of American Cherry for all of the other millwork inside. The American cherry had been provided by my husband’s father and uncle, who had amassed an incredible stock of cherry boards over the years, which they bought at auctions and stored in their barn in New Hampshire. My husband and his father loaded up the wood and drove it down to Miami at the onset of the project, and we milled each piece of wood as was needed. The Cherry wood was used for all of the door frames, interior louvered doors (designed to be the vented AC door and vented pantry door); bathroom and kitchen cabinets, and lightly oiled.

Living in the landscape:
Having studied the Tropical Modern models and the typology of the glass pavilion — and then integrating those ideas with new technologies — we were able to achieve a design that was not only livable but also one that had an immediate relationship with the surrounding landscape.
Because of that, the selection of flora became as important to the architectural experience as the structure itself. The integration of low-tech sustainability measures that were reliant on natural systems received great attention as well.

Project Details:
Location: Miami River, Miami, USA
Type: Residential Houses
Size: 1,500 sf
Architects: Brillhart Architecture
General Contractors: Brillhart Architecture

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