Lessons of resiliency from Sarasota School of Architecture

By Max Strang

Practicality underpinned the architecture scene that unfolded in Sarasota in the 1950s and 60s. As the ‘Sarasota School of Architecture’ movement was taking shape upon the shifting sands and unforgiving summers of Florida’s gulf coast… Paul Rudolph, Ralph Twitchell, and a band of “twenty-something” architects were redefining how to live by the water in America’s subtropics. According to them, the prevailing style of Mediterranean Revival architecture had no place here. Instead, a new approach of “building light and building smart” took hold. Their specific responses to site and climate contributed to a progressive new era in American architecture. In fact, today the ‘Sarasota School’ movement is internationally recognized as a high point of ‘regional modernist’ architecture. Although, the original ‘Sarasota School’ movement ended over fifty years ago I am awed by its timelessness. Many of its lessons are informing the work of my firm as we face the challenges of a changing climate.

As the seas rise and threats of localized flooding increase, coastal homes must be prohibited from using traditional ‘slab-on-grade’ construction methodologies.

At that exciting time in Sarasota, a small number of homes were raised on stilts in search of breezes and views. As a side benefit, those homes were better equipped to handle the occasional hurricane storm surge. Fast forward to today and our coastal cities are confronting compounded and existential threats from rising sea levels, Houstonesque flooding and devastating storm surges from more powerful and more frequent hurricanes. Now is the time to apply those ‘Sarasota School’ lessons and equip our homes, buildings and cities with the strategies of resiliency.

Rudolph’s Walker Guest House, a diminutive powerhouse of architectural design, hints at the strategy of raising the home above the ground. This strategy was more boldly realized with the design of the Leavengood Residence and also the unbuilt design for the Walker Main House. The first takeaway of those latter designs is the simple response of ensuring homes are built higher above the ground. As the seas rise and threats of localized flooding increase, coastal homes must be prohibited from using traditional ‘slab-on-grade’ construction methodologies. Yes, it’s more expensive, but those cost pale in comparison to the long-term financial implications of not building with the future in mind.


Sarasota, Florida, map


Currently, the Army Corps of Engineers establishes requirements regarding the minimum elevations of new structures. An opportunity exists for local municipalities to go beyond these mandated minimums. The costs associated with raising existing homes will be difficult to overcome, however, it makes sense that new construction conforms to stricter standards. Coastal cities need to encourage their residents to build higher. In the long run, the savings on insurance premiums and costly repairs will be enormous. The rewards for building higher clearly outweigh upfront costs.

The second takeaway from the ‘Sarasota School’ is the prospect of using the area beneath the home as functional and aesthetically-inspiring spaces. Current building and zoning codes prevent the effective utilization of the areas beneath a raised home. I propose that such codes be refined to allow homeowners to enjoy the full potential of these covered, outdoor spaces. A home that exceeds the minimum required height above the ground provides a much greater opportunity to create enjoyable outdoor living spaces below.

A major driver of ‘climate change’ and ‘sea level rise’ is our culture’s reliance on fossil fuels to power inefficient buildings.

A major driver of ‘climate change’ and ‘sea level rise’ is our culture’s reliance on fossil fuels to power inefficient buildings. To mitigate this issue, new buildings must become more energy-efficient.Sarasota’s early modern homes offer wonderful examples of this. Thus, the final takeaway from the ‘Sarasota School’ is the consideration of ‘passive design ’ features such as deep overhangs, sun-shading devices, evaporative cooling, daylighting and cross-ventilation.


Sarasota house by Paul Rudolph
Drawing by Paul Rudolph, Library of Congress

The Healy Guest House was envisioned as a small structure protected by a protective spray-on “cocoon” roofing product and wrapped with sun-shading louvers. Similarly, the beloved “Umbrella House”, one of the 20th century’s most iconic houses, resides beneath its iconic umbrella of slats. Most of the early ‘Sarasota School’ buildings featured deep overhangs and a brise-soleil. The aim was simple: to reduce the ‘heat gain’ of a building by deflecting sunlight. Aside from their inherent environmental benefits, such features often provided the architectural identity to the building. Ultimately, these ‘regional modernist’ influences informed the identity of the ‘Sarasota School’ movement as a whole.

Another innovative passive design feature was pioneered by John Lambie, a local Sarasota builder who collaborated with Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell on some projects. His “lamolithic” homes had flat, concrete roofs which were covered with a layer of crushed shells. The shell membrane was kept damp and as the water evaporated under the hot Florida sun, a cooling effect permeated into home below.

While many will opt to strategically retreat from our shorelines, the allure of coastal living will continue to prove irresistible for others. Sarasota’s architectural history offers practical insights on how we must adapt for the future.

The concepts of the Sarasota School of Architecture remain the greatest influence upon me and my firm. Our work strives to incorporate the lessons of that essential modern movement and adapt them to a changed world. I suspect that these site-driven and climate-driven design responses have fueled our firm’s success. I am committed to the idea that the architectural identity of a home should be related to its relationship to its location and environment. Many of our designs feature vertical ‘fins’ that serve to reduce the home’s solar heat gain while also providing additional privacy for the occupants. As a result, these “fins” provide a striking identity for the home. The Tuckman Residence, scheduled for completion in 2018, is derived from Rudolph & Twitchell’s Leavengood Residence in which the main volume of the home is raised a full story above the existing ground. Similarly, our design for the Ballast Trail Residence in the Florida Keys is raised substantially above the ground, a move that proved crucial to its weathering of Hurricane Irma’s recent storm surge.

In 2018, my Miami-based firm will open a satellite office in Sarasota and my family will move into one of the few remaining “lamolithic’ homes on a nearby barrier island. At only five feet above sea level, that particular home is destined to succumb to the Gulf of Mexico. I remain inspired, however, by the opportunity and challenge of building new, building light, and building smart. While many will opt to strategically retreat from our shorelines, the allure of coastal living will continue to prove irresistible for others. Sarasota’s architectural history offers practical insights on how we must adapt for the future.



SarasotaMOD Tickets on Sale

MOD 2017 Tickets on Sale

Download MOD 2017 Schedule

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SAF Members-Only Pool Party

Umbrella House

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Annual Membership Dues:
 $50 Individual; $90 Family (2 people); $35 Student

Questions: 941-364-2199


Dive Into MOD


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Join us for the fourth annual SarasotaMOD Weekend – tickets go on sale August 15th

Tour Five Midcentury Modern Houses in Venice, Florida


December 11, 2016
1:00 to 4:00 PM
5 homes for $40
Buy Advance Tickets Online 

Join the Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) for a self-guided tour of five midcentury modern homes in historic Venice, Florida.

Advance ticket holders may begin the tour at any of the houses on the list and receive a wristband and tour map. On December 11th, limited tickets will be available from 1 to 3 PM at 425 S. Nassau Street only.

Questions: info@SAF-SRQ.org, 941-364-2119

535 Serata Street (1947) 

Magee House
Architect/builder Christopher Magee

Magee had worked under Frank Lloyd Wright building Florida Southern College, yet this house shows more influence of the German Bauhaus movement.

425 S. Nassau Street (1959)

Renovated 2015
Featured in Atomic Ranch Magazine’s Renovation Issue, Summer 2016
Renovation architect: Jon Barrick
Builder: Rob Dynan Construction
Landscape design: Dane Spencer

512 Valencia Road (1956)

Renovated 2008 − 2010
Architect/builder Jack Bailey
Renovation architect: Greg Hall, AIA, LEED, AP, Principle, Hall Architects, PA

616 Valencia Road (1953)
Hudson House
Architect: Ralph Twitchell

500 Sante Joseph Street (1955)

Renovated 2009
Architect: Jack Monteith
Photo shown above by David Ortins


Sarasota Proclaims Victor Lundy Week


What a great night for Sarasota and SAF. Thanks to the City of Sarasota for supporting our architectural heritage. Happy Victor Lundy Week November 7 – 13, 2016!

Above: Sarasota Mayor Willie Shaw, SAF Board Members Elliott Himelfarb, Anne Marie Bergevin, Janet Minker, Christopher Wilson and Michael Bush and SAF Advisory Council Member Lorrie Muldowney.

#victorlundy #sarasotamodweekend #architecture #thisplacematters

Modernism for the Masses

Design Research

The 1939 World’s Fair in New York City introduced many new products and ideas about the future of the American home, promoting industrial design and new materials. But where could the average consumer touch, feel and buy modern design? And how could they learn how to choose, and use, the revolutionary new shapes, products and appliances? This lecture will demonstrate how modern design was popularized for the American consumer, highlighting the importance of designers like Russel and Mary Wright, curators like Alexander Girard and John McAndrew, and shopkeepers like Benjamin Thompson at Design Research or Kitty Weese and Jody Kingrey at Baldwin Kingrey.

Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic. Her essays, reviews, and features Alexandra_Langehave appeared in Architect, Domus, Dwell, Medium, Metropolis, New York Magazine, the New Yorker blog, and the New York Times. She has a monthly Opinion column at Dezeen. During academic year 2013–2014 she was a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She is the author of Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012), as well as the e-book The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism (Strelka Press, 2012). She has long been interested in the creation of domestic life, a theme running through Design Research: The Store that Brought Modern Living to American Homes (Chronicle Books, 2010), which she co-authored with Jane Thompson, as well as her contributions to Formica Forever (Metropolis Books, 2013) and Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future (Yale University Press, 2006). www.alexandralange.net

SAF Lecture: Modernism for the Masses
Thursday, April 23, 2015
Presented by Alexandra Lange
5:30 to 8:00 pm
Complimentary Meet-and-Greet Reception follows the lecture.
Herald-Tribune, 1741 Main Street, Sarasota, FL 34236

Sponsored by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

$10 SAF Members
$15 Public
Free Students, full-time with ID
Purchase Tickets Online

Photo at top: Design Research, Ezra Stoller/ESTO