Tommy Manuel’s inventive approach to Lowcountry architecture springs from influences as surprising and disparate as his innovative drawings. Childhood experiences, professional training and exposure to such farflung countries as Thailand have all played a role. For Manuel, Charleston’s low-lying landscape and natural beauty present a challenge to conventional ideas about how to build at sea level.
“Since I’ve returned to Charleston,” says Manuel, who recently relocated from Miami, “I see the same beautiful Lowcountry vernacular. However, flood zone requirements have raised everything up, creating a condition where an owner’s daily experience typically involves driving under the house into a drab garage and entering through a poorly lit set of stairs. I think there’s a better approach.”
A native of rural Swansea, South Carolina, Manuel’s earliest architectural recollections are of open fields, green pastures and pine forests, punctuated by the stark profiles of cotton gins and grain silos. He says a farmhouse and a barn were his first experience with buildings. These silhouettes inform his perspective, finding expression in his use of design components that showcase nature and frame it within minimalist lines—an aesthetic at once gentle and riveting.
“There is a nice patina of history on those old buildings,” says Manuel, who grew up with a carpenter and brick mason in his immediate family. “What really stands out to me is that no architect designed them—they were simply made by people— and sometimes they’re just beautiful.”
A trip to Thailand while he was a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning in New York brought additional insight to Manuel’s understanding of the intersection of function and design.
“The architecture in Thailand also consisted of elevated buildings—a wood frame on top of concrete walls or piers,” he says. “It was interesting to see how that type of structure—built above flood waters—mitigates humidity, and how louvered walls allow air to flow through the main living spaces.”
For inspiration Manuel cites masters such as Le Corbusier, whose iconic Villa Savoye was the basis of modern architecture. Le Corbusier’s “five points” of design include the incorporation of stilts to allow continuity of the garden beneath the home; a functional roof that serves as a garden and terrace; an open floor plan relieved of load-bearing walls; long horizontal windows for light and ventilation; and a skin of wall and windows unconstrained by load-bearing considerations.
“There are some things the Lowcountry vernacular can learn from these modernist examples,” Manuel says. “Le Corbusier’s procession through the entryway for the Villa Savoye is an experience to be enjoyed daily.”
Emulating the stylistic approach of Le Corbusier and other modernists of the early 20th century, Manuel says he refines design ideas down to their “elemental expression.” Engaging with the client, he identifies priorities and opportunities and gains an understanding of a home’s context. “The beauty and integrity of simple, informal structures and materials influence my approach to design,” he says.
Manuel offers a complete range of architectural services, from conceptual design to construction administration to ensure his clients’ visions are properly executed. Additionally, a low-cost “Discover and Focus” service enables clients to understand the opportunities and limitations of a property prior to purchase. The firm produces a report specific to their property, which includes an analysis of a lot’s unique characteristics, zoning restrictions, design guidelines and recommendations for how to proceed with the planning of a new residence.
An industry professional with over two decades of experience, Manuel has completed residential and commercial projects that span the East Coast, from New York to South Carolina to Florida. In Florida, he instructs graduate and undergraduate classes at the University of Miami’s School of Architecture. He says he’s particularly drawn to Charleston and Miami and their strong Caribbean connections.
Projects underway for 2018 include the launch of three new architectural plans designed by Manuel specifically for the Charleston area; a custom, eco-sensitive modern home on Folly Beach; and a line of concrete tile patterns.
“We can turn our daily experience into something much more enjoyable,” says Manuel. “I’m taking lessons I’ve learned from iconic modern homes, our regional vernacular, and new and traditional building methods and reimagining them here in the Lowcountry.”
Wendy Swat Snyder is a Charleston-based freelance writer and marketing consultant.