Brillhart Architecture redefines elevated living to combat climate change in Miami

Placed atop stilts on a site near Biscayne Bay along Florida’s coastline, the Stewart Avenue Residence is a flood-resistant abode realised in board-formed concrete.

by Jerry ElengicalPublished on : Sep 17, 2022

For US-based firm Brillhart Architecture, led by Jacob and Melissa Brillhart, the task of designing a new residence in Miami, Florida, to replace a pre-existing one that had suffered significant damage due to flooding and natural calamities, presented them with an opportunity to reimagine the typology of an elevated home. In this regard, the project posed an intriguing question on the need for climate-responsive architecture in an age where the consequences of rising sea levels are gradually becoming serious concerns in coastal settlements. With shorelines expected to erode and many seaside urban areas projected to submerge underwater in the coming decades, the ingenuity shown by architects and designers in confronting these threats could make or break the future of such urban domains. Aiming to break away from the traditional mould of such structures - where a conventional ground floor plan is simply raised above the terrain rather than integrated into it - the American architecture practice devised a fresh residential design that leaned into the constraints of its context.

The home is located in a desirable neighbourhood in South Coconut Grove near Biscayne Bay | Stewart Avenue Residence | Brillhart Architecture | STIRworld
The home is located in a desirable neighbourhood in South Coconut Grove near Biscayne Bay Image: Michael Stavardis

Speaking to STIR, the design team at the practice reveals, "The owner of this home, Brad Herman, who is a prominent surgeon in the area, previously lived in a house which was built at grade on the same lot back in 1923. It sustained significant flood damage from hurricanes and tropical storms; the last of which caused four feet of water damage from storm surges.” They continue, “While raised structures are not new (think coastal communities across the US with homes raised on telephone poles), the ‘house on stilts’ design strategy is becoming a precondition of building on the waterfront as we face the escalating realities of climate change. The fact that the owner was willing to make a significant investment for a more resilient and thoughtful architectural design to address these realities, speaks volumes of the importance of designing with climate change in mind.”

The home’s massing is quite slender, dressed in exposed, board-formed concrete and capped by gently pitched roofs | Stewart Avenue Residence | Brillhart Architecture | STIRworld
The home’s massing is quite slender, dressed in exposed, board-formed concrete and capped by gently pitched roofs Image: Michael Stavardis

As the cap for flood insurance from FEMA topped out at $250,000 for building coverage, Herman elected to replace the structure he had called home following the devastation caused by Hurricane Irma in 2017. Even though the site was located in a very desirable South Coconut Grove neighbourhood, just off the shores of Biscayne Bay, rebuilding on the same site did come with its own set of risks. "The site is located in Miami’s most extreme flood zone (VE) - where projects must have their first floor raised on stilts 12 feet above sea level. While we wanted to use concrete as the structure, we also wanted it to feel tropical, so we broke up the massing of the upper story, creating two separate building footprints connected by an open breezeway and a large deck,” shares Brillhart Architecture.

  • View of the entrance to the home | Stewart Avenue Residence | Brillhart Architecture | STIRworld
    View of the entrance to the home Image: Stephan Goettlicher
  • Lush palms and dense vegetation define the house’s tropical context | Stewart Avenue Residence | Brillhart Architecture | STIRworld
    Lush palms and dense vegetation define the house’s tropical context Image: Stephan Goettlicher

In this vein, the American architects structured their new residential architectural venture around three primary design guidelines. The first involved "embracing the understory' on the stilt floor as a core component of the design, instead of viewing it purely as a flood protection measure. Resolving to “invest” in it rather than hide it from view, their scheme for this section of the home positioned it as the first point of engagement with users, pivotal in generating impressions within their minds. “For the understory space, we preserved a coral rock wall, introduced curvilinear board-formed structural forms; slender galvanised steel pipe columns or ‘stilts’ set at varying angles; beautiful, natural materials and detailing; and made use of salt tolerant, resilient plantings, notes the design team. They add, "The board-formed concrete was poured in place by the general contractor while the steel work including the stilts, columns, roof structure, stairs, and railings were prefabricated and installed on site." Virtually no trees were felled in the construction of the new residence, and their preservation along with that of the coral rock wall on site retains a sense of historical reverence, maintaining the character of Coconut Grove. Brillhart Architecture mentions, “Complying with all of the local building codes and the municipal process for obtaining approvals were some of the most challenging aspects of the project.”

  • The building’s exterior is quite austere and naturalistic in nature, with large surfaces of exposed concrete perched atop slender stilts | Stewart Avenue Residence | Brillhart Architecture | STIRworld
    The building’s exterior is quite austere and naturalistic in nature, with large surfaces of exposed concrete perched atop slender stilts Image: Stephan Goettlicher
  • The exposed roof structures display an immaculate attention to detail that persists throughout the design | Stewart Avenue Residence | Brillhart Architecture | STIRworld
    The exposed roof structures display an immaculate attention to detail that persists throughout the design Image: Stephan Goettlicher

Juxtaposed against the strictly geometric design language of the rest of the home, the curved enclosures of the three storage rooms and garage have been devised to resist flooding, with porous openings on their surfaces that allow water to escape. Their massing is said to echo geometries seen in nature - free, flowing, and organic. Grounding the home within the surrounding terrain, these forms are essential to maintaining the visual presence of built mass on the otherwise skeletal structure of the ground floor. A cut out adjacent to the staircase here continues the organic vocabulary, surrounded by the slim profiles of the building’s structural grid. Irregularly placed throughout the plot to prop up the main structure of the house, the skewed, slender profiles of the stilts on the understory have been configured to resemble tree trunks, leaning further into the naturalistic tone of the design. These elements also act as a subtle nod to the neighbouring commune of Stiltsville - a set of wooden stilt houses in Biscayne Bay built over the mid-20th century, which have now become local landmarks.

  • The design seeks to reinvent elevated structures, treating the understory as an essential component of the program rather than excess space | Stewart Avenue Residence | Brillhart Architecture | STIRworld
    The design seeks to reinvent elevated structures, treating the understory as an essential component of the program rather than excess space Image: Stephan Goettlicher
  • View of the home’s metal staircase on the ground floor | Stewart Avenue Residence | Brillhart Architecture | STIRworld
    View of the home’s metal staircase on the ground floor Image: Stephan Goettlicher

Leading up to the first floor, a steel staircase designed with perforated treads and a stainless steel mesh enclosure adds an industrial tinge to the ensemble. As a whole, the woody concrete textures combined with western red cedar and ipe wood on the building’s façade design give it an almost rustic quality. The massing on the upper levels is split up into a pair of elongated rectilinear volumes in an L-shaped arrangement, with an angled deck containing a pool settled in the balance space between them. Of the two, the wing facing towards the bay rises to a height of two stories while its counterpart is limited to a single level. Both volumes are capped by gently pitched roofs with exposed metal rafters - a hallmark of the immaculate display of detailing throughout the design. Although this order may seem simple in certain dimensions, the vertical layering of spaces and built mass generates a dynamic program whose play of solids and voids effectively conceals its true complexity.

  • Exposed concrete and wood panelled finishes also define much of the interior design palette, leaning into the naturalistic theme | Stewart Avenue Residence | Brillhart Architecture | STIRworld
    Exposed concrete and wood panelled finishes also define much of the interior design palette, leaning into the naturalistic theme Image: Stephan Goettlicher
  • The layout has been kept quite narrow in order to infuse a tropical quality to the design | Stewart Avenue Residence | Brillhart Architecture | STIRworld
    The layout has been kept quite narrow in order to infuse a tropical quality to the design Image: Stephan Goettlicher
  • The layout has been kept quite narrow in order to infuse a tropical quality to the design | Stewart Avenue Residence | Brillhart Architecture | STIRworld
    The layout has been kept quite narrow in order to infuse a tropical quality to the design Image: Stephan Goettlicher

Over 6,000 sq ft of outdoor living space has been incorporated into the design, from the deck and elevated pool to the understory and porch overhangs. A tropical quality underscores the entirety of the design, stemming from narrow building footprints and layouts for cross ventilation and natural lighting. Spaces have been ordered in a very linear trajectory, with common areas such as the kitchen, living, dining, and a guest bedroom situated on the first floor. In turn, the topmost floor hosts three bedrooms, once again laid out in a linear fashion, with large balconies looking into the tropical landscape surrounding it. The interior design mimics the austere, earthy qualities of the building’s exterior with predominantly wood and exposed concrete textures, maintaining a sense of coherence throughout.

Floor Plans | Stewart Avenue Residence | Brillhart Architecture | STIRworld
Floor Plans Image: Courtesy of Brillhart Architecture

Set against the lush backdrop of towering palms and dense growth in Coconut Grove, the Stewart Avenue Residence is a novel take on a residential building devised expressly with the intention of flood protection in mind. Forgoing conventions in favour of structural and programmatic experimentation, the project is an especially relevant model for the future when considering the mounting threat posed by rising sea levels in coastal areas. Focusing more on the chemistry between spaces in such a scenario, Brillhart Architecture’s solution highlights the tendency for great architecture to take shape under such constraints, yielding a home that could prove to be an important addition to Miami’s waterfront, inspiring more such interventions in the years to come.

  • Axonometric Layout Diagrams | Stewart Avenue Residence | Brillhart Architecture | STIRworld
    Axonometric Layout Diagrams Image: Courtesy of Brillhart Architecture
  • Axonometric Structural Diagram | Stewart Avenue Residence | Brillhart Architecture | STIRworld
    Axonometric Structural Diagram Image: Courtesy of Brillhart Architecture

Project Details

Name: Stewart Avenue Residence
Location: Miami, Florida, USA
Year of Completion: 2021
Area: 4,500 sq ft
Architect: Brillhart Architecture
Project Team: Jacob Brillhart, Andrew Aquart
Landscape Architect: Chris Cawley Landscape Architects
Consultants: ASD Consulting Engineers; Energy Sciences
General Contractor: Ibuild Construction – Martin Rodriguez

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