When an Indiana couple decided to build a home on Kiawah Island, they chose a beautiful lot with panoramas of the marsh and The Ocean Course. Though the land had spectacular views, they had to find an architect who could design a home that collaborated with an enormous, ancient live oak in the middle of the property and the grove of live oaks to one side. In addition to working around the trees, the couple also wanted something different from their traditional Midwest home. They turned to Joel Wenzel of Thomas & Denzinger Architects.
Thomas & Denzinger is known for its award-winning contemporary designs that go beyond embracing natural surroundings to interacting with them. A hallmark of their work is organic materials, such as wood, concrete and steel used in their natural state and left to patina over time.
Because live oaks are protected, Wenzel had to fit the home’s footprint around the wide trunk spread of the center live oak and the grove of oaks to the side. “I don’t like to do predesign, but I had to show them how a house could fit on the land without cutting down trees,” Wenzel says. As the architect got to know the clients, it became clear that the couple wasn’t just building the house for themselves; they were building it for generations to come. “This home is a family place,” he adds. “Growth is what came to my mind.”
Wenzel designed a 4,500-square-foot home with five bedrooms and five and a half baths. The house is visually divided into three faceted boxes that cascade in three bays toward the view. Constructed primarily of concrete, steel, wood and glass, it is designed to stand up to the elements. To bring the blueprints to life, the clients chose Buffington Homes, a Kiawah Island builder known for its precision, creativity and integrity.
The building team helmed by Trevor Buffington (who also trained as an architect) worked through two hurricanes and a global pandemic to make Wenzel’s vision, and the client’s dream house, a reality. The first order of business was preserving the trees. “Live oaks are sensitive, and we had to make sure we took care of them,” Buffington says. They only trimmed when necessary and with permission from the ARB, and they fertilized and protected the trees through the entire process. Their care paid off: Like a friendly upside-down octopus, the ancient live oak in the center of the property waves happily as we approach.
Facing the home, the middle of the three structures comprises most of the living space, including the entry, living room, kitchen and laundry on the first floor. The second floor has four guest bedrooms and bathrooms, and a rooftop deck. To the right is a glass hyphen that connects to the primary bedroom and bathroom over the garage on the street side. The structure on the left is a screened outdoor living and cooking space known as the cookhouse.
It’s apparent right away that glass is a central character in the story of this home. The front of the house has a 400-square-foot window that spans all three levels, and there are floor-to-ceiling windows at every turn. They are colossal and not just anyone can install them. “There are a lot of curtain wall windows in this house,” says Roland Gahafer, owner of Atlantic Architectural Windows & Doors. “This is an application that is typical in commercial design, but traditional window and door companies haven’t gone there yet. That’s our specialty.”
To realize the architect’s vision of horizontal lines in the concrete every three or four feet, Buffington had to source special forms. The concrete was left untouched to preserve the natural patina. Inside, building materials mirror the exterior. Floors are rift and quartersawn white oak and peacock pavers. In the entry, we get an introduction to what to expect in the rest of the house. The 400-square-foot floor-to-ceiling windows frame the live oak, giving the feeling that we’re in a tree house.
Turning left, we enter the kitchen, which is open to the living and dining area. A curtain wall of windows in the back provides unobstructed views of the river. In the kitchen, an quartz island with a waterfall profile seats four. To the left of the cabinets, Wenzel carved out a light-filled desk niche with an innovative desktop. As with every space in this house, the breakfast area is cozy enough for two or four but can comfortably accommodate more. The dining area floats between two grand curtain window walls, one with an informal seating area overlooking the pool, cookhouse and oak grove. An innovative formed concrete shelf hovers over the bar steps away from the dining table. Stepping down from the kitchen is a screened porch with a fireplace and views of verdant palm trees and the marsh.
Upstairs in this structure are four guest bedrooms with baths and a comfortable living room. There is a bunk room built into the hall that is perfect for kids or extra adults. Each guestroom has incredible views that go on for miles, and each incorporates concrete, glass or wood elements in a unique way. One guestroom has exposed oak ribs that run the vertical length of the walls and ceiling, a custom detail that could only be pulled off by a master craftsperson. “The ceiling is tapered in this room, so we had to taper the wood in two directions,” Buffington says.
Back in the entry, to the left, we pass through the glass hallway to get to the primary bedroom, bath and home office. The bedroom is right-sized and cozy with varying ceiling heights. Wenzel designed a home office in this structure and added a sleek hanging desk that floats above the floor, another thoughtful detail that keeps the views center stage. The homeowners’ bathroom is expansive, with high ceilings and custom-made wood accents.
There’s no doubt the home is a work of art, but thanks to masterful design and the expertise of the team that carried it out, it’s a work that changes with the color of the sky and water. Regardless of the season, this is an extraordinarily peaceful home that will grow with the family and with the environment.
Robin Howard is a freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.