From the beach, the sound started as a soft rumble, almost like thunder. Mark Permar stopped moving as the galloping closed in. He had heard about this but never seen it. The herd stampeded over the sand dune, took one look at him, and stopped. Permar stood eye-to-eye with twenty wild horses.
“It was absolutely surreal,” says Mark Permar, today Kiawah’s Chief Consulting Planner. “It was 1979 and I had just joined the Kiawah team. I was still taking in the sheer beauty of the landscape, and then this. Horses on the beach! It was really too much.”
The horses are not a myth nor are the arrowheads left behind by Chief Cassique’s warriors, the unmarked slave graves in former indigo fields, the Civil War burnings of Vanderhorst Plantation, or the fabled turn-of-the-century hunting parties. Much of Kiawah’s history centers around its natural resources, breathtaking environment, and valuable landscape.
Kiawah Island is comprised of three ecosystems: the maritime forest, the estuarine ecosystem of tidewater habitats, and the freshwater ecosystem of nontidal wetlands. Each system teems with wildlife, making Kiawah famous for its blue herons, sugar white ibis, long-legged egrets, extraordinary butterflies, herds of deer, and once upon a time, wild horses.
From the first stages of modern development in the 1970s, the Kiawah Island Company respected the notion that the Island’s coasts, marshes, forests, and wildlife would never really belong to them.
“Designing with nature rather than on top of it has been our vision from day one,” says Buddy Darby, founder and CEO of Kiawah Partners. “We started off with an environmental impact study as big as the Manhattan phone book. Not a single reptile, plant, or mosquito went unaccounted for.”
From there, Kiawah Partners appointed an Architectural Review Board (ARB) to play a major role in maintaining their vision. This five-member group scrutinizes all building projects on the island—from clubhouses to condos to private villas— beginning to end. Working with both staff and private architects, the Board strategizes everything from the flow of dune fields to erosion walls to low-impact tree pruning.
“As you drive around Kiawah, it doesn’t take long to understand what the ARB is about,” says Amanda Mole, ARB Manager and Staff Architect. “You don’t see the houses; they disappear right into the landscape. This is not an accident, and it has taken decades of vigilance to get it right.”
When the Kiawah Island Company began building in the late 1970s, the idea of “designing with nature” looked like a cross between the earthy southern style of Hilton Head’s Sea Pines Resort and the new California condo trend. Beginning with the West Beach condos, development quickly extended to residential homes. High on the list of the ARB’s priorities at that time was—believe it or not—minimum square footage.
“Early on, we worried about people wanting to build too small,” Permar remembers. “We were afraid that anything under 1,800 square feet would diminish the value of the community. It never occurred to us that we would soon need maximum square footages!”
The development boom of the 1980s lured new wealth to the island and many private homes were super-sized. Some clients favored trendy embellishments like stucco, lighter colors, and elaborate landscaping that did not coincide with Kiawah’s original vision.
“At that time, a lot of people came to Kiawah because they liked the idea of living in nature. They had a sort of romantic idea of it from television,” Permar says. “But what they really wanted to do was carve out a piece of nature and plop a mansion in its place.”
When Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989, it swept away 80 percent of the island’s foliage and left homes battered and exposed. Despite the disaster, the storm drew the Kiawah Island Company back to its original vision. Goliath homes were no longer able to hide in the trees, and the ARB reevaluated its standards for “designing with nature.”
Rather than structures that simply blended into the trees, the ARB promoted a symbiotic relationship between nature and design. In other words, the role of architecture is to enhance the beauty of the landscape by marrying inconspicuous man-made structures with natural elements like live oaks, wetlands, and dune fields. In doing so, the architecture furnishes a platform to enjoy nature up close.
“Without a doubt, designing with nature presents significant challenges, like how do you build a dock without disrupting the traffic of ground animals or a house around an ancient oak? But when you are working with the best, these challenges bring nothing but creative solutions,” says Mole.
Leading by example, Kiawah built the Beach Club in 1994. Using high-quality natural materials, such as wood shingles, muted stains, and rugged beams, the building is all at once elegant and effortless, embodying the breezy sophistication that has become Kiawah’s signature style.
“As Kiawah has matured, we’ve learned that attention to every detail is what sets us apart,” says Darby. “Most developers would hire a clubhouse architect and then show up for the ribbon cutting. Not us. We push our design and construction teams every day to create a structure that is beautiful, creative, and perfectly Kiawah.”
The definition of “perfectly Kiawah” is something that continues to evolve as the community attracts a larger number of cosmopolitan residents. Passing through the early condos in West Beach to the more recent Ocean Park and Settlement neighborhoods, it’s easy to identify the evolution of trends and the diversity in taste. However, certain elements seem consistent: wood shingles, dark trim, and natural stains with unique angles, turrets, staircases, and breezeways gracefully incorporated.
“Sometimes the process can be push and pull,” says Scott Anderson, Director of Architecture. “Kiawah property owners are very intelligent, successful people who know what they
want. Architects spend a lot of time educating new property owners about Kiawah’s vision, and once they get it, they respond very well to our suggestions. It’s not hard to see how designing with nature makes for a richer experience and a more valuable home.
“It’s important to visit the property during different times of the day to show them how the sun will affect every angle of their home,” he explains. “Also owners must learn about prevailing winds and how they affect the movement of mosquitoes and the comfort of outdoor spaces. Learning how to use the environment to the advantage of a home really opens owners up to Kiawah’s standards.”
One couple purchased a lot in 2008 and soon realized that a live oak root system grew where they planned to lay the foundation. The ARB helped design a bridge foundation, in which part of the foundation comes out of the ground and works its way around the roots. The couple were enchanted with the results. Instead of a live oak in their yard, they got one
in the center of their house, growing on the same axis as the interior living spaces.
“That tree could keep living there for centuries; it will probably last longer than that house,” Anderson says.
Mark Permar has lived on Kiawah Island for thirty-three years since he first stood eye-to-eye with the wild horses. Day in and day out, he sees room for improvement—a cornice that juts out too far, a paint color that is too bright, a house that is just too big—but he is proud of the community he has helped create in an environment that will be protected for generations to come.
“I’ve been talking to my neighbors for three decades. The number one reason they chose Kiawah isn’t golf or tennis or swimming pools, it’s the experience of nature,” says Permar. “That’s why the ARB is nuts about it. As restrictive as their codes may seem, the ARB has allowed us to create a community that is absolutely stunning.”
From time to time, the founding Kiawah Partners and the ARB members will take a boat ride through the marsh, just to see how they are doing. It’s a chance to feel the spray of the ocean and remember exactly what they are trying to protect. The team notices wildlife, the movement of grasses, and the formation of streams as they scan the banks for anything man-made that takes away from the natural beauty.
According to Mole, Kiawah’s true success will be measured in one hundred years. “If we are able to one day look down this marsh and still not see any houses, we will know we’ve done something right.” — K.G.