Everything old is new again.
It's something that many people discover in the Gulf County area, including a handful of architects from locations far from here. Those architects, all involved in the planning of WindMark Beach, sat down to talk about how they took to heart the old adage in planning and designing the resort complex.
Master planning of the entire WindMark complex began almost a decade ago in late 1999, according to Paul Milana, who has been involved since the beginning. Milana and Philip Giang, both architects with Cooper Robertson and Partners, knew from their initial site visit in 1999 that the area was very special and needed careful handling.
They began the concept plan for WindMark in 2000 and the finished product, they said, is very similar to their plan.
"We let the concept plan rest for a while after the initial planning, but came back with a vengeance after Sept. 11 ," said Milana. "We developed the master plan in more detail and worked out the environmental plan, which is the underpinning of the entire project."
Giang and Milana remarked frequently on the "rare and strange environment" of WindMark and adjacent areas, describing the landscape as a "washboard."
"It's amazing to see micro climates separated by only 10 feet," Milana said, describing how the washboard contours of the land - continuous ridges and dips - controlled everything they designed. "We knew we had a powerful landscape to protect."
Using other coastal communities as templates, Milana and Giang visited places like Fire Island, New York (a truly pedestrian seaside community accessible only by boat) and the famous Atlantic City boardwalk, among several others.
Among their guiding principles, they said, was to treat cars where they needed to be, and remove vehicles where possible. Through their plan for a series of boardwalks, the architects worked to incorporate foot traffic, bicycles, in-line skates and golf carts as their primary means of transportation through out the complex.
The ruggedness of the landscape was also the foundation for the fundamentals of the architecture, they said. The development was, in their words, "unusual, a new kind of project," with the uniqueness of the extensive community boardwalks and the beach walk as particular challenges.
Giang, who worked extensively on the beach walk, admitted the four miles of the old U.S. 98 were especially challenging. He said he wanted to incorporate "little elements of surprise" along the four mile stretch, especially to indicate directions, since the strip of roadbed looked the same along its length.
"Cooper Robertson had worked in Walton County with projects located along old [U.S.] 98," Giang said, "but we knew the conditions were different here. There were big trucks and high speeds, so it was not the same at all. We knew if we could move [U.S.] 98, there would be an enormous opportunity to use the beach."
Maintaining Beach Access/Habitat
Giang and Milana both remembered the opposition in Gulf County to moving [U.S.] 98, with so many people believing that moving the road would take the beach away from people.
Actually, it was the opposite, they said. "Moving the road basically gave the water back to the public," said Giang, "and also gave the beach back to the beach mice and the turtles. It resulted in an enormous creation of habitat instead of the usual mitigation for lost wetlands," he added.
Architect Peter Dominick, of the firm 42/40, lives in Colorado. He contrasted the WindMark beach walk with developments out west.
The boardwalk systems of WindMark are excellent for preservation of habitat, he agreed, especially when combined with such large amounts of natural areas, which surround the boardwalks.
"It's a brutal landscape, tough," he said, describing the washboard system of sandy hills and arid low places. "It was a blessing moving [U.S.] 98. Notice that all the boardwalks run perpendicular to [U.S.] 98. It's much more pleasant, giving softness to the landscape areas.
"In the long run, it will also be more healthful," Dominick said.
A Different Take
Ross Anderson, of Anderson Architects in Manhattan, had another take on the area's landscape and the natural sounds unique to the coast and pristine natural areas.
Anderson, who designed one of the model houses, was also charged with designing housing for the mechanical aspects of the town center.
To illustrate his thinking on the subject, he said he told his fellow architects about being in Manhattan during a blackout. He walked along the edge of Central Park, he said, and heard a strange noise.
It was crickets, he told them.
Crickets are always there, he continued, "but we never heard them because of all the other noise. So, after visiting the WindMark area, the question became, how do you deal with machines, like air conditioning units, if you want the environment to be natural?
"We tried to use local architecture and building materials that made sense in the 1900, that were sympathetic to the area, but then machines arrived," Anderson said. "It was a bit of a struggle to work around the noise and sights of machines."
Architect John Kirk, designer of the WindMark Southern Accents House and a member of Cooper Robertson and Partners, added that they had numerous references for house designs, but not for larger buildings.
"It was tougher," he said.
The Landmark Tower
Eric Davidson, project manager for WindMark Beach, said preserving the quiet of the natural area, plus the amazing night skies for which the region is known, added to the concern about noisy machinery.
"That's how the landmark tower came to be." he said. "It is the cooling plant for the entire town center."
The tower, which is located at the entrance to the town hub at Good Morning Street off of U.S. 98, is a very large structure that manages to contain - very quietly - the entire cooling system for the town, yet blends right in with the surrounding buildings and even the landscape.
As Anderson talked about the tower, he described how the design allows for groups to gather, play and "generally hang out" at the structure that serves as a community center, as well.
"Our job was to preserve this place because it is so beautiful and pristine," Milana said, pointing out the older style architectural ideas that had been incorporated in the model houses.
A Mix of Old and New
In enumerating all the old ideas the team wove into the buildings, he pointed out that the houses are all on pilings, which allows for natural air flow and the natural percolation of water back in to the ground.
This encourages better long-term survival of both the animals and the houses, he explained.
A favorite building feature among the architects that shows up throughout the town center and in all the houses is the old-fashioned dog trot, which allows breezes to pass through and between buildings for better cooling.
"We were constantly finding new reasons for old, tried and true ideas," Kirk said.
Just as interesting as the melding of old ideas into new styles was the smooth working of the diverse team of architects.
"A real powerhouse of architects, with an amazing dynamic, who left their egos at the door," was Anderson's description of the design team. "We exchanged ideas about this special place and made a conscious effort to work together, which resulted in a fabulous project," he added.
"This entire project could have had a visually loud result, but as each one of us presented his or her designs, each flowed in to the other," Milana agreed.
"It was all fueled by the uniqueness and the beauty of the landscape."
Davidson concurred. "Having worked with designers all over the world, so often with diverse teams you get diverse, and not always converging, results," he said. "But here, we weren't chasing an architectural style, we were chasing an ethic."
"St. Joe picked their team very carefully," Kirk agreed. "We've had lots of fun, laughs and debates."
"It was so clear that we could not be a bunch of carpetbaggers trying to import foreign ideas to this area. We can thank Cooper Robertson for knowing how to read the landscape and giving us the direction," Anderson said, describing some of their travels around the county to "get a sense of the larger landscape, not just the beach."
"One part of the success of this project was to understand the culture here," Giang pointed out. "One of the amazing things is the local characteristics."
"We all felt inspired, and our debates and meetings became a pure exchange of ideas," Milana concluded. "Everyone was generous with his or her sources of information and examples. We learned so much even after 20 years of doing this."